Agathe and Réjean Lapointe are very much in love.
After close to 20 years of marriage, they still blow each other kisses and make each other gifts. As teens, Chevy-truck-obsessed Réjean already had a chest "as big as a rain barrel" and hands "like a bunch of bananas," and Agathe was "pretty enough to be a newscaster or figure skater." Through a lifetime together their affection has evolved into something simultaneously tender and intense – full of concern, affection, lust and even a touch of fiery jealousy. They are a team of two, largely secluded from the rest of the world by choice – a point underlined by their Francophone speech in a largely English-speaking area..
"Their physical relationship had flourished over the years, despite the normalcy and tedium innate in all couples," writes debut novelist Michelle Winters of her fictional pair. "For him, she would always be the girl who had awakened his soul that July day at the marché when they were teenagers."
Yet regardless of that rare and passionate solidity, in spite of that enduring love, something just feels wrong. There is a kind of groping desperation to their union, a need and a fear that becomes even more pronounced when the police show up at the door of their secluded cottage and inform Agathe that Réjean's prized Chevy Silverado has been abandoned, the driver’s door still open, and that her true love is nowhere to be found.
Agathe, Réjean and their offbeat brand of passion exist at the centre of I Am a Truck – and this abrupt separation has profound effects upon Agathe. Set in the rural Acadia region of New Brunswick province, and featuring both French and English dialogue, Winters does a lot on the page and packs a great deal of charm into this brief, very human little book. In fact, it is Winters's economical knack for the short story that shines through; she's got a talent for beautifully vivid details (occasionally bordering on the absurd – such as Martin, their Chevy-truck dealer who guiltily drives a Ford which he hides several blocks away, pretending he doesn’t have a car at all), and sets a quick pace from scene to scene. And though there is a great deal of the mundane day to day here, somehow Winters makes magic with it. Interestingly this seems to be a common theme across my Canadian stopovers – the mundanity and matter-of-factness of life in the face of mystery, intrigue and tragedy. Perhaps this reflects the bleak Arctic landscapes and prairies – monotonous in themselves but thinly veiling the promise of magic just beyond the treeline…
While there is no obvious explanation for Réjean's disappearance, it doesn't look as if he's been kidnapped or harmed, but instead that he's left of his own free will. Consumed by grief, Agathe assumes her mountain of a man has deserted her, perhaps through some fault of her own, perhaps for another woman. From there the book evolves into a mystery of sorts, but not in any sort of traditional page-turner sense. We are treated to flashbacks to flesh out what exactly did happen to the devoted Réjean, but they are actually less interesting than the focus on Agathe and what happens when she finds herself alone without explanation.
In Réjean's absence, Agathe initially wallows – "it was hard to know whether to start moving on or continue loving him in his absence." She sits in his chair, chain-smokes cigarettes and is full of grief for her lost love. She does manage to pull herself together in part by getting a job at Stereoblast, a used-electronics store, and by befriending effervescent co-worker Debbie. Days and nights become full of distracting rock 'n' roll, drinks and driving lessons, and in turn, Agathe gains a new sense of identity and solidity.
Add to the narrative mix Chevy dealer Martin Bureau, a man with some perhaps obsessive feelings for Réjean of his own, a cheese-making gun dealer hidden in the woods, a military man – a possible but unfulfilled love-interest who sets in chain a series of events he is completely unaware of simply by his presence - the random appearance of a Stereoblast bat mascot named Beatrice (heavy with symbolism) and the I Am a Truck ensemble transports our tale deep into the off-kilter weird and wonderful.
"The Silverado was a living metaphor for Réjean, a physical manifestation of the man who wasn't coming home. Why wasn't he coming home?"
This book is a compressed yet somehow expansive read, its characters vivid and its drama racing – although Réjean remains an enigma, almost mute in his taciturnity (and Agathe is not exactly talkative). Quirky and fun, I Am a Truck feels like a departure from the usual romantic / self-discovery fare, and that's a very good thing.
Totally at home despite its small stature – both in publishing house and page count – this novel, whilst not without its flaws, offers something fresh and unexpected.
I now trek north by a rickety Cessna 2-seater plane, into the true Arctic region of Canada's North in the Nunavet province, to remote Ellesmere Island, where I find mystery and murder among the Inuit communities in my final port of call in Canada.