In Running on Fumes, the debut novel by Christian Guay-Poliquin (translated into English by Jacob Homel), we follow an increasingly punch-drunk driver on a road trip across an apocalyptic version of Canada. At the outset of the narrative, the electricity inexplicably goes out nationwide, and gradually the mundanities of life shift to the rigours of survival. An unnamed mechanic jumps into his beat-up car and drives 4,736 kilometres east to reach his dying father. As the narrator’s journey becomes one of essentials – gasoline, water bottles, and gas-station food – and as the crisis around him begins to weigh more heavily, he seeks refuge with a woman, and later, a fellow traveler he meets on the road. But these two souls seem to seek a different sort of redemption …
This road novel moves at a gripping pace, and its enigmatic narrator and elements of magic realism will intrigue and provoke discussion. (Trust us; our editors had some lively discussions during the making of this book!) Today on Meta-Talon, read selections from Running on Fumes (taken from pages 1–3, 24–25, and 77–78). In other words, “Hey, you. Get into my car.”
I. THE LABYRINTH
A place greater than any single human existence. You might wander through it for years without ever treading the same soil. A place that escapes from the tyranny of touch and sight. Only growing fatigue gives you an indication of the road travelled. A place without landmarks, where the erasure of the outside world is stronger than any memory. Galleries, rooms, intersections; all of them built to confound your bearings. Each hallway is imperceptibly curved and the arc of every single one of these tangled walls follows the curvature of the earth. He who believes he is moving in a straight line is actually drawing great concentric circles. He who turns around cannot retrace his steps.
II. THE BEAST
In the centre of the labyrinth lives a beast. A beast whose patience strikes fear in the heart of mortals. A beast who waits for the end with the determination of those with nothing left to lose. His silhouette melts into the shadows of the landscape. His glare is more dazzling than a mirror. The surprise his appearance causes is the last spark of life he allows.
It was my father. Yelling on the other end of the line. Again. I told him to calm down. To speak slower. That I couldn’t understand a thing. That it would pass. His voice had been the same for a while now. Withered with age. Sometimes the silences that punctuated his sentences made me think of black holes, expanding. He hesitated as he approached each word. Other days, his speech became an uninterrupted flood, a great landslide towards panic.
This time he told me that people had come into his house. That they had wanted the keys to his car, food, money. He hadn’t moved from his rocking chair. They came in and yelled, loudly, not giving him a chance to answer. There were four of them. They rifled through his house, overturning everything. They took the keys to his car , food, and his hunting rifles. They hadn’t found his money though, hidden in the potato bin. Then they left, joining up with a group waiting outside, before going into the house across the street. I tried in vain to reassure him.
He insisted. They’ll be back, them or others like them. I asked him the time, calmly, to bring him back to reality. He stopped talking. Mumbled a little. I don’t know, he said, there’s no power. He went on to say he should hide and wait. I told him he could wait if he wanted, but he shouldn’t hide. And don’t forget to sleep and eat. And don’t drink. And rest up a little, will you?
This couldn’t continue much longer. He needed help. He couldn’t live alone in the middle of nowhere, in an abandoned mining town, nearly deserted. My father was sinking with the town, and both he and it were turning into ghosts.
I knew he wasn’t doing well. For years now he’d been saying his life seemed to be shrinking, that he felt he was forgetting simple things. That he still drove though his licence had been revoked. That the dark that sometimes filled him had nothing to do with the usual confusion of alcohol and solitude. That trying to find the names of things infuriated him. That he distrusted everyone without knowing why.
And that night, once again, he seemed demented. I tried to reason with him, but he continued, not listening to me at all. A house had burned. People in the streets. His neighbours fleeing their own homes. Then people had come into his house, they wanted the keys to his car, food, money, and he hadn’t budged an inch from his rocking chair, they came in, and then they told him … And I hung up.
I neared the silhouette. The sun was on the point of rising, but it was still dark and I couldn’t distinguish it well. I noticed only a large travel bag at its feet. A shame I had no room. Or time to stop. It was better if I travelled alone, anyway. A passenger would just slow me down. As I neared, she slowly lowered her arm, as if guessing I was a lost cause. A gust of wind.
I braked and stopped the car on the side of the road. The cat started moving around in his box and managed to free himself. In the rear-view mirror , I saw her approach my car. I tried to catch the cat but he was too agile for me. She ran to my window, coughed once or twice, and knocked. A woman, thirty years old, more or less. Black eyes, black hair , long black shirt. With a large green duffel bag.
I signalled to her she should wait, giving me time to grab the cat, but she didn’t understand my disorganized gestures and opened the door. Before I could say anything, the cat jumped between her legs and disappeared in the roadside grass.
I looked at the woman. She was pretty. Pale under reddened cheeks. Very pale. She bent forward at the waist and, in a breathless voice, asked where I was going. Without answering, I told her to catch the cat. I got out of the car. We searched the tall grass, looked in the ditches. I scanned the fields around me. I whistled after him. Then we waited.
He wasn’t coming back. I knew that. But I couldn’t just leave him here, like this.
I shook my head and told the woman I was going east, very far east. She answered that she had a long way to go to get to the city, and that a long way east was fine with her.
While I tried to find some room for her on the passenger seat, she glanced at the chaos that reigned in my car. Sorry, it’s a total mess and it smells like cat. She climbed in next to me and placed her bag between her legs. She fussed over her hair for a moment and thanked me.
I told myself that the imaginary beast that followed me would probably stop for a moment here, lift its snout to smell the air , prick its ears as it frothed at the mouth, raise a cry, eat my cat to satiate its appetite, and continue its quest with increased fervor.
Running on Fumes is available now for $16.95.