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The Motorcyclist by George Elliott Clarke

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

Carl is Apollo negro, black in Halifax in the furious fifties. Astride his R69 BMW motorcycle, he cruises the sun-streaked streets to offer fickle females the temptation of straddling its hot engine, and later maybe his own. The machine is monikered Liz II, named for the Commonwealth Queen but decked-out in deep, dark purple for the lovely, luscious Haligonian ladies.

Grandson of the revered Rev. Waters, but the son of a frequently fallen woman, Carl is the only legitimate heir of Victoria Black’s five progeny. Begat by an island man, Black in name and hue, who was paid to marry and bestow a surname on his child and paid to leave so Victoria could avoid the inconvenience of marital mores.

For daytime drudgery Carl works for the CNR—the Canadian Negro Railway—checking the three Ls: luggage, linen, and laundry. But his true loves are the three Bs: Beethoven, Bach, and his BMW. Yet he yearns for the love of the flesh. Scent-accented Muriel, Laura “Blue Roses” States, Beautiful Marina White (another desirable BMW), and Avril, a white belle from Dixie, who has fled the land of the KKK and the plantation for the colour-blindness of the Great White North. Carl, prowling on the purring Liz II loves them all.

Renowned poet George Elliott Clarke’s second novel, The Motorcyclist, is a bit of a hybrid—part novel, part genre slam. As such, it must be judged on its own terms. The language (imitated above) is filled with rhyme and alliteration, Negro slang, a hipster beat—all to evoke a year long gone, but one where people could sense they stood on the edge of great possibility.

Using his father’s diaries as a springboard, Clarke is writing about a young man seeking his way in the world, feeling both the lightness of freedom and the weight of responsibility. It is the era of emancipation, and Carl is experiencing it to the fullest. Clarke shows Carl as he searches for love and identity amid the subliminal racism that was everywhere and the condescension that came with it. The motorcycle is a symbol of freedom, of power. Carl clings to it as he rides—it is a means both of confirmation of his worth as a man and of escape from the prejudice of the past.

Clarke’s unique, vibrant style has drawbacks, however. The often pointed, frequently hilarious wit and playfulness with words keep the author’s voice in the forefront. While this is certainly entertaining, it has a subordinating effect. The reader experiences the characters’ thoughts and emotions only second-hand. There is almost no dialogue and the little snippets of what might be bits of internal monologue are submerged all too quickly by Clarke’s colourful narrative. As a result we never get close to the characters. We are told much but shown, in fact, very little, and this blunts the book’s potentially considerable emotional impact. Even Carl is distant, aloof. One oddity is that the motorcycle ride Carl takes to the US, all the way to Washington DC, is given short schrift. This trip had all the makings of a journey of personal growth, a black Canadian’s On the Road, perhaps. An opportunity missed, to be sure.

The Motorcyclist is published by HarperCollins.

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