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Lovely language can't make up for lack of believable story

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Lisa Moore's thrid novel relies too much on coincidence.

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Lisa Moore's thrid novel relies too much on coincidence.

Canadian novelist Lisa Moore's new book is a beautiful piece of writing trapped in a poorly told story.

This is Moore's third novel; the previous two have won national awards. February, a gripping tale of the fallout from the Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster that killed 84 men, won the 2012 CBC Radio Canada Reads contest.

Her publisher cites praise for Moore's earlier work from The New Yorker and from Richard Ford, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist in his own right.

In Caught, David Slaney, a ne'er-do-well Newfoundlander, escapes from jail while serving four years for trying to smuggle a boatload of marijuana into Canada.

Foiled on the Atlantic Ocean, Slaney makes his way across Canada to Vancouver to try again on the Pacific.

Following him physically and electronically is a policeman with impure motives.

Caught is set in the same era as February: late 1970s and early 1980s. Both novels feature storms at sea, one deadly, the other just dramatic.

In this novel Moore melds thoughts, speech and action in an appropriately hallucinatory brew intensified by its freedom from quotation marks.

Here, for example, is our hero visiting a cemetery, trying on a new identity for his next bumbling dope deal.

"Doug Knight, he said. He spoke out loud. He cleared his throat. Doug. Douglas. He said it in a conversational tone, then he said it a little softer than that. Hey, Doug. Doug, over here. Jesus, Doug.

"Slaney felt all the meaning uncleave from the word. The sacrilege of what he was doing. He was messing with something larger than himself. He tried to let the name be just a sound. Then all the meaning busted back."

In another passage, Slaney recalls family pictures, envisioning his brothers as "a thousand watts of joy and badness."

Even pests are beautiful. "Mosquitoes touched him all over. They settled on his skin and put their fine things into him and they were lulled and bloated and thought themselves sexy and near death."

But too much of the novel turns on coincidences.

Slaney "never read the obits," but one day he does, and he learns that his prison psychotherapist has died.

Then a hurricane blows the stupefied smugglers and their boat to safety on land rather than to death at sea.

Later, the sight of a goat eating a woman's blouse reveals to Slaney that he must enter Canada at a different point.

After the reader struggles through these contrivances, she is rewarded with an anticlimax that sucks the air out of the story of Slaney's struggle to stay ahead of the law.

The novel concludes with a 20-year flash-forward that reveals nothing of importance.

Late in the book, a scene at a Mexican bullfight raises questions about the nature and purpose of storytelling.

A policeman reflects: "He loved that the fight was fixed. Every step planned and played out. Always the bull would end up dead.

"It was the certainty that satisfied some desire in the audience. The best stories, he thought, we've known the end from the beginning."

That's why the journey needs to be interesting. Too bad this one isn't.

Duncan McMonagle teaches journalism at Red River College. Follow him on Twitter @dmcmonagle.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 G6

History

Updated on Monday, June 10, 2013 at 9:06 AM CDT: Removes reference to "Maritime" in lede paragraph

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