A Toronto Bootlegging Story: Strange Fugitive

downloadThe new year is now 9 days old and I just finished my first book. It feels a little bit strange, but at the same time I am enjoying not having had to finish two and a half books in that time.

Anyways, Morley Callaghan’s 1928 novel Strange Fugitive is an entertaining read. It was the first book he published in a long career that spanned 60 years and included 13 novels, 6 novellas, and several collections of short fiction. While working at the Toronto Star as a cub reporter, he met Ernest Hemingway whose advice and reader’s eye helped him get started. He would become a leading light in Canadian literature after spending time with other Modernist figures like William Carlos Williams (who provides a pseudo-afterword in the edition I read), Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce. and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Following World War II, he became Canada’s leading writer, won plenty of awards, and even had an academic Symposium in his honor at the University of Ottawa. However, this fame has not kept him in the spotlight as he has faded in importance in Canadian literary discourses despite the occasional work on him being published now and then. All this to say that I am a little embarrassed to admit my own lack of familiarity with his work. This novel was initially on my reading list for my Toronto chapter, but I never got around to reading it largely because I suspected it would not fit with what I was looking for (which proved true).

Strange Fugitive reads like a cross between an existentialist novel (think Camus’ The Stranger), an Ernest Hemingway short story with its earnest male narrator seeking to validate his masculinity, and a crime novel. Set during the high days of bootlegging in Ontario, Harry Trotter gets caught up in the trade while trying to make something of himself. In case you didn’t know, Ontario – particularly the cities of Toronto, Hamilton and Windsor -was a hotbed for illegal liquor and various gangs and criminals made fortunes shipping the booze around town and across the border. The novel’s narrative arc proceeds in a downward trajectory as Trotter starts with a good job as a foremen at a lumber yard before ending up embroiled in a deadly battle for control of the bootlegging business. His inability to control his temper leads him to lose his job (this seems to be the most obvious tip of the hat to Hemingway as his virile masculinity lands him in trouble) and his dissatisfaction with his wife Vera leads him to a series of other women.

Initially, readers may have been on board with Trotter, even sympathizing with him, but Callaghan performs a peculiarly well-wrought feat in getting us to become disenchanted with him before re-enchanting us near the end of the novel. I am not quite sure how he pulled this off as Trotter is not a particularly nice character (often mean, petty, shallow, and definitely a hypocrite) but I was back to cheering for him by the novel`s end. Maybe it`s because I knew he was a bad guy but that it was not completely his fault and that his fall from grace was in some ways inevitable (and thus Callaghan invokes a sense of reader`s pity).

Overall, I`m not sure whether fellow readers would be interested in this book or not. I read it for historical and cultural reasons (and let`s be honest, these are not the most enticing reasons to pick up a book), but found myself enjoying the novel`s style and quirks. Even though Toronto is not named (it is clearly Toronto though and there is an academic article by Justin D. Edwards showing how), you can make out it’s 1920’s contours. If you like crime novels or gang narratives, this novel might be of interest while fans of Hemingway or Camus might also find things to like.

Callaghan, Morley. Strange Fugitive. 1928. Toronto: Exile Editions, 2004. Print.

*The image above is not the cover for the version I read, but I thought it was more interesting.

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