Monday, 8 September 2014

Reviews of Books I've Never Read

People of the Deer by Farley Mowat

With the somewhat recent passing of Farley Mowat, it seems amiss that I have never reviewed any of his books that I've never read. Well, I'm here to remedy that situation and though I could have selected one of his more well-known novels like Never Cry Wolf or The Dog Who Wouldn't Be or his much maligned by the critics but still wildly popular memoir, Hair of the Beard, Hem of the Kilt, I chose instead his very first novel because that was the one on the thrift shop fifty-cent sale shelf. It was this book really that was to cement the ideas that later would make up Mowat's oeuvre of Arctic tundra, antler envy, wolves in fleece clothing, dogs flying airplanes, reindeer salami, oil tankers carrying the cryogenically-frozen heads of ex-Nazis and the mysterious disappearance of the Franklin Expedition's narwhal-tusk lacrosse sticks from the Lacrosse Museum of Irkutsk.

Mowat was not a man to dither around with fanciful words like dither, homunculus, Francois Mitterand or bratwurst, when one could get right to the point with simple usage and syntax like "underwear-shaped icebergs," "smelly bear gland mittens" or "eyes stretched hard against the bleak and blinding snowy wasteland like caribou snot cradled by lichen stained with Viking blood."

His intuitive way with both nature and direct mail order catalog marketing have led his legions of fans to say everything from "Damn, Mowat, that book really opened my eyes to the plight of walrus' used as florists in situation comedies," to "Thanks again, Farley, the slippers arrived just in time for my wife's birthday and were just as you described but even better. That dried oolichan skin feels great on the tootsies." The point is, this two-fold skill set of both narrative dexterity and salesmanship situated Mr. Mowat in a unique position in the annals of Canadian literary history because if you're able to write an engrossing book and equally adept at engrossing potential customers with poetic descriptions of products from electric toenail clippers to deer hoof salt and pepper shakers (Mowat set up quite a successful little deer hoof novelty cottage industry for his extended family including his ne'er do well brother-in-law, Albert, who bankrupted his own father's maple syrup company by mixing the maple syrup with motor oil to get more syrup per litre thus lowering his production costs while boosting his sale price), then you've got it made in the shade of a deer tick infested pine tree.

Speaking of deer hooves, be they on the animal or adorning your tabletop, it's time to get down to the blubber of this book and examine the motives and morality that Mowat likes to hit us with with all the sting of a frozen seal flipper smack across the face. If you don't know what that feels like then obviously you haven't had a typical Canadian upbringing. What Canadian child hasn't been disciplined with a frozen seal flipper at one time or another? It's part of what makes our nation great, our seals fearful and our citizens so polite.

The premise is this. Farley Mowat, as a fictional version of himself and renamed Nigel Cluneworth II, travels far into the Arctic Circle to discover a lost Arctic tribe who might very well have been the original descendants of the Pleistocene ice age inhabitants who crossed the massive land bridges from Siberia to Baffin Island and then traveled inland to the barrens of Hudson Bay. There they found vast herds of caribou and bucket loads of ptarmigan (Colonel Sanders would've had a field day with these birds if he ever got this far north as ptarmigan, cooked and breaded, are not only delicious but size-wise made for cardboard buckets), so they had plenty to eat and lots of feathers with which to make their trademark duvets. Unlike the Inuit who fashioned snazzy snow houses from their surroundings back in the day, this tribe, known as the Ishkabibblelites, according to Mowat but refuted by everybody else except Mowat's dog, Randolph, refused to build any type of shelter against the elements and so the duvets were integral to their outdoor existence. If you have any doubts that these Arctic grouse can provide the proper protection against such fierce and unrelenting conditions then just find yourself a gaggle of ptarmigan, plunk yourself down in their midst (they are highly attracted to human flesh due to its high trans fat content, porous skin and hair follicles that, to the ptarmigan seem to mimic the texture of certain tundra mosses that they like) and as they snuggle up to you with their plump grouse bodies you will feel a warmth like a thousand suns or twenty Pizza Pockets fresh out of the microwave and duct-taped to your body with maybe one or two inserted into your anal cavity for extra warmth against those endless Arctic nights.

Nigel, after days of traveling by dogsled across the barren tundra, finally encounters the first signs of the Ishkabibbilites in the form of a mound of blood-stained duvets, some freshly plucked ptarmigans and a gutted caribou carcass. It's not long before Nigel finds the tribe hunkered down a few miles away and enjoying a late afternoon picnic of fresh, raw caribou meat and lichen salad. Though they're wary at first, once Nigel proves he speaks Ishkabibblelite (which Mowat describes as a deep guttural noise, not unlike a male caribou looking to mate or the sound of Mowat's Uncle Stan eating blood pudding), he is welcomed into the tribe and even honored with his own duvet although Nigel is deathly allergic to ptarmigan feathers and sneezes incessantly. As he wanders the tundra with these nomadic nomads of the north, Nigel comes to understand their ways, their culture, their fears and their plight from the gradual encroachment of the "white man" that is threatening their way of life. Mowat deftly describes the hardships of the Ishkabibblelites, from the cannibalistic larvae of the devil flies that hatch in the rotting carcasses of caribou but quickly seek out human flesh to satiate their omnivorous appetites to the corpses of the white trappers riding across the ice floes on their ghost sleds looking to carry away the weak, the elderly and the snow blind to their hellish lairs beneath the ice. And that's just an average Monday up there in the Great White North. That all changed of course once they set up bingo halls in the Quonset huts. Here are a couple of passages from the book guaranteed to raise your hackles, spackle your mackeral and shrink your man-tackle so that it doesn't freeze from being dragged through a snowbank.   

"I paddled over to the still-quivering corpse and saw the murderer in all his glory, its ovipositor throbbing as it began ejaculating larvae into Kakumee's bloodstream. Eventually these squirming eggs would form a small mass about the size of a grapefruit beneath the host skin and it was ironic that the only cure for this invasion of these repulsive parasites was the injection of actual grapefruit juice in a land where sadly no grapefruit had ever, nor would ever, be seen. If they succeeded in hatching then the nematodes would become winged and soon every man, woman and child's liver would be consumed and there would be no igloo left for Ootek or seal meat for Franz, the German explorer, bon-vivant and heir to a schnitzel fortune back in Gruenwurst, who had lost his way 20 years ago searching for the Northwest Passage and had been hanging around ever since, ingratiating himself with the Inuit and the Ishkabibbleites, using his cheery beer-hall personality and promises of sleds full of pork sausage if his father ever received the letter he sent tied to the leg of a well-trained but slightly aging passenger ptarmigan who most probably had gone down somewhere over Labrador or at best, a few miles out over the Atlantic."

And then there's this:

"The ghost trapper appeared, lips frozen into a grimace and his voice was like that of a dog breaking wind. The Eskimo hunters stopped and admired his strange sled until it dawned on them he came from the land of the dead. His journey was done but theirs was just beginning. Curiosity and zoology had rendered him a corpse and his subsequent darkness bade ground squirrels, Arctic hares and garrulous ptarmigan to multiply until their tracks covered the hills, valleys and full bellies of wing-boned sorcerers trusted to discern the hastily erected tents of lifeless beings who grew fat on the flesh of the lost, sick and forlorn." 

What one notices immediately is the surreal, almost stream-of consciousness tone this second example takes. For good reason it turns out for during the time Mowat was in the Arctic, he had discovered, and was helping himself quite liberally, to a hallucinogenic lichen the Ishakabibbleites referred to as Kaila, God of Dizziness, Bright Light and Vomiting. And it's here where literary history takes a turn for the surprising because, as it turns out, Mowat, through some earlier university spore exchange program between the U.S. and Canada where they were feeding mole-rats various psychotropic plant extracts and fungus scrapings (on behalf of the military of course), and monitoring their reactions, befriended a young William Burroughs who was already showing a penchant for mind-altering drugs and as Mowat wrote to Burroughs during his Arctic excursion, "Hey Bill, get your scrawny ass up here to the Barrens because I've found some lichen that'll knock your socks off and turn your head into a spongy mass of primeval tundra mush that stinks of the spoors of long dead woolly mammoths and Neanderthal armpits. I'm guessing it might just be your cup to tea and fuck if it doesn't make the Northern Lights look like the birth of the goddamn universe taking place right inside your brain."

A short but enlightening correspondence ensued and the end result was Burroughs was up there as fast as a DeHavilland Beaver could drop his bony butt on the ice. The never-before-published letters between the two men, known as the Lichen Letters, were no doubt the inspiration behind a later series of published correspondences between Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, well-known as The Yage Letters that explored the two writers' search for and experimentation with an Amazonian vine that, when brewed became a powerful hallucinogen. For my money I'd take the lichen over the vine any day because tropical climes give me hives and I like to avoid snakes and sloths when I'm hallucinating. Plus, after my psychedelic journey, I like to know there's a snowmobile nearby so I can get to a Tim Horton's Doughnut shop as quickly as possible and refuel my body with a couple of maple-glazed after exploring the deepest regions of my mind. It's a known fact maple-glazed doughnuts restore the body's tissue, brain cells and nerve fibers after heavy cerebral exertions. That's why the rest of the world is crazy for the stuff. By the way, the Lichen Letters are slated to be published by my good friend and roofer, loving divorcee and life coach, Ed Smeeley Jr. under his imprint, Nail Gun Through The Head Press but hopefully I'll be able to give a preview of some of these letters on these pages soon. Stay tuned. 

Although the experiences of these two literary men tripping out on hallucinogenic lichen while wandering the tundra are not described in this novel, the essence of that event are reflected in an evolving subtext throughout the book that allows Mowat to play with words and ideas as if he were locked in an ice-fishing hut during spring thaw, listening to the ice creaking as it softens up while he screams for help but only gets the howling of wolves and the sputtering of a snowmobile misfiring from bad spark plugs miles away in reply. Maybe if he'd gobbled down a dozen maple-glazed doughnuts to begin with it would have given him the strength to karate chop down the walls of the hut in the first place but who thinks of these things when you're venturing out on the lake to catch a couple of winter trout and maybe masturbate to thoughts of Anne Murray singing Snowbird while dressed in a fetching purple pantsuit on an episode of the Tommy Hunter Show that you saw years ago when you were just a kid and your father told you to "get th'hell to bed," as he tried to adjust the rabbit ears on the TV set because the only thing he was seeing about Anne Murray singing Snowbird was just snow on the screen.
A young Farley Mowat and fellow explorer and future literary star, William S. Burroughs (turned away from the camera), stopping to admire the barren landscape after ingesting some hallucinogenic lichen. Mowat was later to use his seal and polar bear furred garments as the inspiration for his magnificent beard that he grew over the next fifty years. Burroughs, on the other hand, despite the allure of psychotropic lichen, couldn't wait to get out of the Arctic for sunnier climes and remained a close shaver for the rest of his life.
Eventually, and ironically you might say, the very people Mowat sets out to both depict and illuminate the world to their hardships, kick him out of the tribe as his incessant sneezing due to ptarmigan feather allergies keeps scaring the caribou herds away. Soon the Ishkabibbilelites are starving as their primary food source is driven away and though Mowat tries to pass this off as the result of the intrusion of the "white man" and their judicial systems, hunting practices, prepackaged noodle soups, nasal sprays, aerosol cheese and the preponderance of discarded toupees from out-of-work game show hosts clogging up the Arctic sea, it's really Mowat who is responsible for this atrocity and he's got only himself to blame. Which is where many critics have taken offense at Mowat's passing the buck and see this as a moral lapse in his writing and judgement. Not to mention a negligent and offhand approach to his allergies almost leading to the decimation of an entire race of peoples. 

But that's neither here nor there (which lies somewhere between midair and unaware), because this book is still a great expose of government hypocrisy, the destructive forces of economic control in the Arctic, the tenuous balance between nature and technology, the caribou antler hat-rack and side-table lamp industry and one man's quest (albeit stoned to the gills on psychedelic lichen) to bring to light the plight of a forgotten people. And by that I mean the Ishkabibblelites and not the cryogenically frozen heads of ex-Nazis looking for a good home and basement deep freezer in the suburbs. This is truly an amazing book even though I barely made it past the first page but with a cover like this featuring a herd of majestic caribou outlined against a stark Arctic winter landscape, their enormous curved antlers just waiting to be turned into inkwells, salt and pepper shakers, hat-racks, lamp stands and ashtrays, their dung heaps peppering the air with their joy and their fear, and the unseen but anticipatory arrival of the ancient tribe that likes to eat them (including the eyeballs and snouts), you don't really need to read anything inside. Sometimes, you really can judge a book by its cover or a caribou by its hide, especially when it's standing under a urine-yellow sky and you've just ingested some hallucinogenic lichen or, in my case this fuzzy mold growing on the half a can of uncovered Alphaghetti at the back of my fridge that left me feeling a little queasy but turned my hot plate into the Northern Lights after I finished vomiting into a pillowcase. Mowat remains a writer of incredible and indefatigable talent (although he is dead so some fatigue must have set in by now) and I believe  I'll return to him again and again to never read his many fine novels for ideas and inspiration, or at least as long as I keep finding moldy food in my fridge or under by bed.