Lisa Moore, Caught (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2013). Hardcover, 318 pp., $29.95.
There’s forest running through much of the background of Lisa Moore’s third novel. The forest is what protagonist David Slaney emerges from in the opening pages, bounding toward the highway in his orange coveralls, escaping from the Nova Scotia prison that held him for four years and almost extinguished his will. And it’s mostly forest that he passes as he hitches rides from benevolent ex-con truckers, ambitious supermarket cashiers, and undercover cops on his way to Montreal and on to Vancouver to reunite with his friend Hearn. Hearn has been busy doing a PhD in modern literature and organizing another large-scale pot buy that will work this time, that will land Slaney (and a tonnage of marijuana) safely on the shores of Newfoundland as a rich, free man with his whole life ahead of him and the 1970s drawing to a happy and unfettered close.
Caught is a road-trip novel, essentially, and later a seafaring novel. The scenery that Slaney passes through, the wild, sparsely populated spaces, assumes a metaphorical importance. But of course Slaney is not free, not really, though his thirst for freedom is youthful and unwavering and therefore feels elemental and deserved. His attention to the details of life outside the joint reflects the deprivation he’s suffered and the weight it placed on what we think is his very nature. Once Slaney is first able to come to rest on the outside, even something as inconsequential as a piece of motel furniture is treated with relish and awe and is possessed of a surfeit of meaning:
It was an old leather humpty with a pattern of embossed elephants parading around the side, each elephant holding the tail of the elephant before it in its trunk, a foreleg raised in anticipation of the next step. The stitching had given way and beneath the leather was a burlap sack and that had a tear in the side and golden sawdust spilled out onto the tiles, disembowelling one of the elephants.
At the same time, Slaney labours under “a premonition of being caught. As if his capture belonged to him, a responsibility he’d been born into, like a title or a crown.” When he learns that he’s taking the voyage from Colombia to Newfoundland with the increasingly unstable skipper and hometown slum landlord/actor Cyril Carter and his new girlfriend Ada, a young woman who seeks freedom as vehemently as Slaney does, Slaney knows he’s doomed, in more ways than one:
Slaney didn’t want the girl on the boat. Jesus Christ. He didn’t want this beautiful stupid girl on the boat with him. He would take Carter aside and tell him to send her back on the plane. He didn’t care where Carter sent her. She was not getting on the boat. Nobody said the word anymore. Sexed or vexed or kitten. Vixen.
Slaney’s simultaneous pursuit of freedom and flight from capture—and in between those two states the kind interactions he has with all the people he encounters—makes him an easy character to like and to root for. At the same time, he knows he’s likeable and that he excels at these honest encounters. He recalls the prison therapist asking him to name his strengths:
He said that he knew how to look at people so they could be who they were, which basically meant he had a capacity for trust. He thought trust, when he spoke to her, was a vestigial organ, near his liver, swollen, threatening to burst. Maybe it would poison him. But it was also his special skill. His strength.
Slaney had a way of holding his body, a gesture or look that said, Tell me.
And people told him.
Even though it takes him the length of the novel to see that any freedom he thought he’d achieved never existed, that he “had never escaped” but rather had “just been on a long chain,” we want him to keep going, to evade this inevitable re-shackling, to keep trusting people. And isn’t this what most road-trip novels aim to do, to show us a pure thirst for escape and freedom and how impossible those states are to sustain? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the forested background comes to be less unpopulated and uninterested in Slaney as we first think. In a parallel storyline, we follow Patterson, the unspectacular cop tasked with both allowing and ending Slaney’s journey. We see satellite-tracking technology unveiled specifically for use against our hopeful, trusting protagonist.
Moore’s ability to conceal a drum-tight plot line and an unflagging fidelity to the thematic pillars of Caught —mistakes and luck, trust and doubt, consequences and freedom—in the cloak of rough-and-tumble prose is something to behold. A stand-out scene takes place at yet another motel, where the police have narrowed in on Slaney but a bride-to-be with a broken zipper, assuming that he is somehow related to the groom, corrals Slaney into her room, saving him from capture. The incongruous tension between tugging at a stuck zipper and hearing pairs of heavy footsteps approaching the door—coupled with the stifling heat of the room, the bride’s admission that she doesn’t want to become a wife, and Slaney’s realization of the bride’s beauty and intelligence—is breathtaking to read. Moore can hold down many, many notes at once and keep them all humming. She can blanket a flashback within a flashback within a scene and have each modulation in time ring with complexity.
There exists throughout Caught a second type of forest, a forest in the abstract, which is where the novel places its ideas and its imaginings. It’s in this forest that we come to see trust and doubt as “twins joined by a fused skull,” that stand “in the dark forest yelling at each other: Put up your dukes.” Similarly, mistakes—like the hitches in Hearn and Slaney’s first attempt to import two tons of pot into Newfoundland—“stand in the centre of an empty field and cry out for love.” And luck is that “animal presence, feral and watchful,” the thing that Slaney believes—hopes—could be his, if he can just “coax it into the open” and “grab it by the throat.” The metaphysical terrain of Slaney’s journey, this other forested space, hints at what propels his quest for freedom, and what part of himself he stands to lose should he fail.
—Laurie D. Graham