If Bird doesn’t know Thumps Dreadfulwater, someone should introduce them. Both men are photographers, indigenous (they’d probably say ‘Indian), and diabetic. Both have had longterm relationships—with cats, as well as women, and they would consider dessert their favourite food group. They’re simultaneously interested enough in the world to strike up conversations with strangers and disinterested enough to be indiscriminately cranky (depending on the day).

Which is to say that, if you have grown fond of Thumps, on the pages of Thomas King’s Chinook mystery series, you’ll feel right at home with Bird in Indians on Vacation.

Bird and Mimi are in Prague together. They’ve been together for many years. Enough years for Mimi to have individually named all of Bird’s neuroses. Enough years for frank discussions about bodily functions (perhaps topics for conversation more now than ever, as their bodies age and their health declines). And for dinners enjoyed with two good books (rather than robust conversation). It’s a comfortable union, with an occasional jolt of sass, like when Mimi suggests she might get personal with an anatomically correct art installation.

They’re asking all the questions that tourists ask. When Mimi shares the information in her travel guide, about a bunch of bronze babies, mid-crawl and faceless, she muses aloud about their meaning. Maybe something to do with television and the angst of modern existence, she suggests. Mimi’s relentless curiosity and her determination to engage Bird in her deliberate and exhaustive explorations of their surroundings is comical. She’s forever insisting on a restaurant that’s a forty-minute-walk away from their current location.

They’re also asking another set of questions: what does art mean? who has the authority to declare what creative works are significant? how do we interpret the things we encounter in our daily lives? how different is that process when we are removed from our quotidian experience and existing in a temporary and unfamiliar location? (But, if you don’t want to think about that, you can just focus on those faceless babies.)

Bird and Mimi are in motion, across the globe (they reside in Guelph, Ontario), because an ancestor, Uncle Leroy, carried away a family medicine bundle many years before; the couple follows his trail of postcards and they investigate the clues as they travel. It could be an archetypal tale of discovery. But check your expectations at the door: “‘Authentic is overdone,’ said Bernie. ‘Authentic is one of the ideas Whites use to hold us in place. It’s one of the ways we hold ourselves in place.’”

Thomas King’s characters are in motion, like those bronze babies, either directionless or homing; they’re aging and questing, determined and uncertain. They encounter the unexpected. They reset the archetype. Bird remarks: “The first expectation of a good travel story is that something went wrong. No one wants to hear about the perfectly uneventful time you spent in Istanbul. Not even you.” (But if you don’t want to philosophize, you can focus on the train schedules, the landmarks in the guide books, and the backstories for the characters that gradually unfold.)

Consider Mimi, for instance, when she’s researching dinner options. She’s looking for an authentic Czech experience; she’s disappointed that there are no traditional desserts on the menu (no medovnik, no makovy kolucek) and patrons have to settle for tiramisu. She, too, wants something authentic, even while acknowledging the burdens of authenticity, the blurred line between stereotyping and prejudice. She’s disappointed when the waiter speaks English, when “Secret Agent Man” plays, and both she and Bird are puzzled as to why there’s a pommel horse in the middle of the restaurant. It’s concrete, relatable.

What we expect, what we don’t expect: whether we are travelling or at home, whether we are encountering fictional events on the page or moving through the world we inhabit on a daily basis, this is at the core of Indians on Vacation and also at the core of our existence. Because the gap between reality and what we expect (and don’t expect) means that things are always changing. Always changing and never changing. So that, at times, it’s hard to sort out which is which. It’s symbolic, existential.

When he was younger, Bird worked as a journalist. Once, he was asked: “Why waste your time writing about something that can’t be changed? Where is the good in that? What do you expect will happen when you publish this story?” Bird’s still pondering the answer. Meanwhile, he’s drinking a lot of coffee (there are so many espressos and cappuccinos in this novel!), and he’s eating quite a few pastries and some ice-cream (there’s some talk of fruit, and kale gets a mention). It’s what you do while you’re figuring out all the rest of it.

Had it been published just a single year later, Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water might well have been put forward for the inaugural Giller Prize (Bonnie Burnard, Eliza Clark, Shyam Selvadurai, Steve Weiner, and M.G. Vassanji were shortlisted that year) as it was for the Governor General’s Award (which Carol Shields won, for The Stone Diaries). Instead, King served as a Giller jury member for in 2002 and this is the first work of his to be nominated (and this year’s jury did not advance this novel to the shortlist).

Inner workings
Seemingly effortlessly, King layers his storytelling. Readers can simply enjoy the idea of a couple vacationing in Prague, with talk of who sleeps later and what tourist attractions are closed, the action limited to a thwarted daytrip or a rebellious digestive system. Readers can also enjoy incisive commentary about belonging and home, identity and racialization, capitalism and colonialism.

Direct and functional, there’s nothing fancy about King’s vocabulary and syntax. Readers never need to squirm in uncertainty: “But when you travel, when you’re on the road, these possibilities vanish. No library, no doctor, no friends. No routines to fill your day. There’s just the two of you, alone in a strange city.”

“So we’re in Prague.” It’s impossible to forget, because Bird restates it so many times. Partly because he is ever-conscious of not being at home. Partly because readers are meant to notice that there aren’t many stories about “Indians on vacation”.  Indigenous lit is more likely to be set somewhere like Mimi’s mother’s double-wide trailer “on the Blackfoot reserve in southern Alberta” with a porch where you can “watch the Rockies turn evening purple and wake up to see the Belly River, thin and silver, as it cuts its way through the prairies”. (Which raises questions about what kinds of stories readers expect to hear and how restrictive a single narrative can become.)

King’s comic timing and delivery are finely tuned and accomplished. Readers can hear the pause-and-reset with the callbacks (for instance, the infamous “So we’re in Prague”), refreshing readers’ interest, and each chapter is subdivided into short scenes or inner ruminations, so that the prose flows steadily. Hastening the pace even further is the believable dialogue, which is fueled by a heightened appreciation of irony.

Readers Wanted
You recognize that a witty moment and a painful moment can occupy the same moment.
Of course ‘occupy’ is a verb, but it’s also an adjective in your political experience.
A quality coffeeshop would be on your list of tourist destinations, no matter where you travel.
Sometimes you feel like a tourist in your own life, with a travel package you don’t recognize.

This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!