Our Lake Ontario … or Theirs?
Justin Torres, We The Animals (2011)
Manny and Joel were flunking, so when a man paid my father to drive a package up to Niagara Falls, it was me Paps took out of school fro two days; it was me he brought along for company. We drove for four hours; Paps didn’t say much, just that we were headed east, around Lake Ontario, hugging the shore. We stayed in a dusty motel room, and in the morning Paps took me to see the falls…. (98)
If you’re curious to know what sort of writing is coming out of the big U.S. writing workshop programs (and, really, why would you be?), then this novel will give you a sense of it – both the good and the bad – and all in only 120 pages! (The Acknowledgements section – which is as long as some of the chapters – mentions the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Bread Loaf conference, among others, and thanks a number of well-known, and doubtless well-connected, authors.)
Even over such a short distance, the self-consciously “poetic” and “writerly” style goes from intriguing to grating as the plot, such as it is, meanders – I was going to say in circles, but that would suggest some sort of patterning; more like in a series of shaky spirals that eventually make their uneven way off the page and into the mist of the reader’s disinterest.
And does it even contain a reference to Canada? I have to admit that it’s impossible to be sure from the book itself. The narrator’s family lives in upstate New York, and the Niagara Falls referred to could easily be on the American side; there’s no specific reference to crossing the border. But my instinctive nationalism is such that when I read the words “Lake Ontario” I immediately thought “Canada!” Only after a few seconds of more sober reflection did I recall that, like most lakes, Lake Ontario has two sides, and in this case the other side is in another country entirely.
In this chapter, after showing the narrator the falls, the father leaves him and disappears for most of the day, presumably to deliver the mysterious “package” referred to in the quoted passage. The set-up suggests there is something shady or illegal about the delivery, and I like to imagine it involves crossing and re-crossing the Canadian border, and so is a reference to Canada, which represents unknown, mysterious, and probably criminal errands – all the things we see but don’t understand about our parents.
But I could easily be mistaken.