a review by Pablo Strauss
READING WILLIAM S. MESSIER’S third book, Dixie, reminded me of my first taste of Aleksandar Hemon:
I closed the bathroom door and the hooked towels trembled. There was the pungent smell of the plastic shower curtain and disintegrating soap. The toilet bowl was agape, with a dissolving piece of toilet paper in it throbbing like a jellyfish. The faucet was sternly counting off droplets.
I felt a visceral jolt at the strangeness of “hooked towels,” a feeling that intensified as the prose spins further off kilter while honing in on a bizarre sort of truth. Description like this makes us see the too-often overlooked beauty and singularity of everything around us. Soon I was sitting bolt upright. I imagine I’m not alone in this reaction, as I trust others wondered why their valuable time was being spent on a description of toilet paper floating in a porcelain bowl. Dixie is not for them.
“An old burgundy Sundance whose rusted-out wheel wells flaked ever so slightly away with every bump on the cracked asphalt of Dutch Road pulled up at the Huots’ driveway to let an arm reach out of the passenger window.”
The novel is a collection of such languorous, polished, rhythmic sentences, teeming in detail. Extraneous? That depends whether you feel there are enough rusted-out Sundances in literature. Sometimes it seems the detail is the point and the plot a backdrop to this jubilant and just depiction of a corner of the Eastern Townships and its larger-than-life but thoroughly average characters.
The story involves smuggling, wrestling, moonshining, an American fugitive from justice, a meat theft, outdoor banjo-playing as coyote deterrent, families, friendships, and much more. It’s a multi-generational saga, a somewhat diffuse whole made of memorable episodes (including a totally unforgettable primer on how to make moonshine with such ingredients as Kentucky bluegrass, galvanized screws, BBQ peanuts, and a Black Sabbath T-shirt). In typical Marchand de feuilles fashion, the book as an object is as beautifully crafted as the writing is scrupulously edited: in this case a nostalgic typeface and black-and-white linocuts by Julien Boisseau lend Dixie an old-timey feel.
Bruce Serafin once lauded Michel Tremblay for being vulgar, in the original sense of the word. By way of contrast he was dismayed that “English Canadian writing is almost never ‘of the people.’ Think of the difference between most Canadian novels and Trailer Park Boys.” Dixie has characters who would be at home in a Trailer Park Boys episode, and at times it’s every bit as funny.
Not an easy read though. Even native speakers may find the Eastern Townships French quite foreign. It took me time to figure out, for example, that a knife described as “dolle comme de la foil” was “dull as foil.” But this intermingling of English and French, of Quebec and American culture, is deep in the loam of the border culture depicted in Dixie. Messier’s love of his home region and its vernacular shines through in his dogged yet deft attempt to capture it all, every spark from a smoke thrown from the passenger side of an old Dodge Dakota ripping down the country road in the moonlight, its bed full of stolen meat. ≈
by William S. Messier
≈ translated by Pablo Strauss
Rodrigue “Hot Rod” Létourneau and his wife Ursule got home from a dinner party to find their garage freezers cleaned out. Plenty of folks lock their fridges in these parts, especially when they own cattle. Meat thieves are known to pay occasional late night visits in search of an open door or a vulnerable lock. At Hot Rod’s everything was in order, but a standard padlock is no match for your run-of-the-mill skid.
Imagine the scene. It’s dark. The skid in question is cruising slowly down Philipsburg Road in a pickup: a predator sniffing left and right. Seeing no sign of life at the Rodrigues’, he slows. Keeps going, does a U-turn at Corriveau Road. Kills the headlights as he climbs the hill before reaching the farm, then turns off the rock spewing from his half-opened window and flicks out a butt. In the cool air the still-burning embers dance and disperse in the gravel of Philipsburg Road, like a corkscrewing shooting star. He backs up to the big garage doors. Cuts the engine, puts on work gloves. Stops and pricks an ear, making sure the coast is clear, then finally gets out of his truck, still bent over slightly – a hyena on the loose in the Townships. He sidles alongside his pickup, shimmies up to the garage, sees no handle to open it from the front, and in a few quick bounds covers the space between truck and building. Holds close to the siding as he turns the corner. Smashes a window and comes in through the garage’s back door. The sound of shattering glass rings out in the night, amplified by the stone walls in Hot Rod’s yard. Once inside our skid breaks the freezer locks, opens the big garage door, and starts transferring the goods.
When the Létourneaus get home they find their freezers groaning and gaping against the back wall, a plastic coolness emanating from their wide-open maws. All said three hundred pounds of ribs, flanks, sirloin, shanks, round steaks, shoulders, and T-bones are gone. The SQ detectives have their hands full combing the area for a convict escaped from the Cowansville prison. They take Hot Rod’s statement over the phone.
As for the meat, another freezer has to be found fast. An insomniac living along Dutch Road, between Bedford Township and Saint-Arnaud, would have seen a Dodge Dakota speeding south like a bullet. No sooner was the headlight’s glare stamped on their sleepy retina than it dropped out of sight in the dip of a back road through the fields, leaving behind a trail of greasy rock music to warm the night. ≈