Monday, December 17, 2018

Alan Cumyn's "North to Benjamin"

Alan Cumyn is the award-winning author of several wide-ranging and often wildly different novels. His historical novels The Sojourn and The Famished Lover chronicle the First World War and Great Depression experiences of artist Ramsay Crome. His human rights novels, Man of Bone and Burridge Unbound, follow a torture victim through survival and post-trauma. Losing It is a darkly funny and truly twisted novel about madness, while his Owen Skye books for kids–The Secret Life of Owen Skye, After Sylvia and Dear Sylvia— hilariously trace the calamitous trials of childhood and the pangs of early love. Cumyn’s young adult novel Tilt is a funny, sexy exploration of a teenaged boy’s obsessions as he lives through an impossibly absurd time of life. All Night, a literacy project, follows a young artsy couple through a stormy night of hard truths and romantic dreams. And Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend brings a touch of Kafka to the previously ordered love life of a high school senior who has no idea what might fly out of the primordial past. His latest novel, North to Benjamin, is a psychological thriller that sees a young boy, Edgar, dragged north by his unstable mother, testing his formidable survival skills.

Cumyn applied “Page 99 Test” to North to Benjamin and reported the following:
On page 99 of my new novel, North to Benjamin, young Edgar loses his regular speaking voice and begins barking like a dog. It's a pivotal moment. Edgar has been dragged north to the frontier town of Dawson City, Yukon by his unstable mother, Stephanie, who is looking for a new start after man problems in Toronto. They are housesitting and have little money, and Edgar, a quietly observant, deeply sensitive boy, has seen clearly that his mother is on the verge of embarking on yet another disastrous relationship, this time with a man who has befriended them but already has a long-time partner. Edgar has bonded with Benjamin, the old dog who came with the house, and in his anxious state has begun talking directly with Benjamin and nobody else.

In the kitchen, Edgar's mother loses patience with her eccentric son. "You could say something to me right now to indicate you know exactly what I'm telling you," she says. When all he manages is a quiet, "Woof-woof," she slams the table. "Talk! God damn you! Talk!" When he tries to write her a note – My throat feels bad – she sees right through him. "You're faking it!" she says near the end of the page.

By this point in the book it's well established that Edgar survives through his sensitivity, and through his ability to disappear, to escape notice. But the loss of his speaking voice, which coincides with his arrival at a new school, robs him of his usual survival strategies. Yet the bond with Benjamin is profound, and extends not only to some important conversations, but an unexpected ability on Edgar's part to smell with canine power, in effect to "read the news" of everything that is going on through the scents of those around him. So Edgar becomes sensitive in a different way, and the story turns in an unusual direction.

My wife and I were lucky enough to spend three months living in Dawson City, Yukon in the spring of 2014, at the Berton House residency, sponsored by the Writers' Trust of Canada. Dawson became famous as a gold rush town in 1898, and remains a delightful oddity – a vibrant small town in the middle of nowhere surrounded by wilderness, and throbbing with stories. During my time there I was working on another novel, Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, but stayed open to the story possibilities. It was only after we got back home that Edgar entered my imagination as a possible protagonist. The place itself, Dawson, where the Klondike River meets the Yukon River, and where cultures clashed when gold-crazed prospectors overran the local indigenous tribes, is almost like an extra character in the book. I'm not sure I've had a physical location affect me so profoundly for its rugged beauty, and for the openness and generosity of the people there. We would love to go back!
Visit Alan Cumyn's website.

Writers Read: Alan Cumyn.

My Book, The Movie: North to Benjamin.

--Marshal Zeringue