Veteran writer Rod MacIntyre has combined his talents in scoring authentic and witty dialogue, evoking place to the point where you can actually smell it, and building both personal and physical drama in his seventh book, Mahihkan Lake. Well-known for his YA novels and story collections, now MacIntyre’s characters are all grown up and about to collide – with dark secrets and personal demons in tow – at a mouse-infested cabin beside a northern Saskatchewan lake. Cue gun shots, “a Jesus big storm,” and the cremains of a brother in a “strawberry-faced” cookie jar. Cue wolf (“‘Mahihkan’ – or a word like it – is Cree for wolf”), a gravel truck driver named Harold (with a man’s “boot in his brake hose”), and a mysterious letter. Cue a 1968 Martin guitar, a Road King motorcycle, and chaos.
Drama aside, this novel’s an existential story about self and an intimate exploration of family composed via equal shots of humour and pathos. If the book had a subtitle, it could be How Did We Get Here? MacIntyre’s also a playwright and screenwriter, and there’s a lot of talking in this tale as the characters both literally and figuratively warm. Several chapters are almost entirely dialogue between the underachieving and self-deprecating alcoholic musician Denny and his successful (her new Saab is “The colour of good dental work”) but haunted sister, Dianne. They contemplate talent, happiness, and familial history while tending to practical matters, ie: how to get the cabin’s ancient pump to work.
Denny describes himself as a “complete slob” who is drinking himself into “blissful oblivion”. He lives alone above a paint store. At the story’s inception Dianne retrieves him from his month at a rehab centre, and his fervent drinking is like a through-thread in this novel. At one point Dianne says, “You don’t have a heart, Dennis, you have an enlarged liver”. The three sections of the book – Blue, Sepia and Red – refer to his progressive states of drunkenness. In the “Red Zone,” he says he “start[s] hallucinating dead people”.
Denny co-wrote and toured two mildly successful albums back in the day. His “behemoth mega-hit” was “recorded in eighteen languages” and – in fine MacIntyre-esque comic style – “There’s a yodelling version from Switzerland that is playing on YouTube as we speak.”
The author, who’s called both Saskatoon and La Ronge home, succinctly captures secondary characters with telling details, ie: the siblings’ father, who built the cabin, was a “terrible carpenter”: “His motto was ‘if it’s close, it’s good.’” Dianne’s husband, whom Denny refers to as “The Doink,” is allergic to leather and the colour black, and niece Kirsten is dating a guy with “Eat Shit” tattooed on his forehead.
Harold’s just plain unlucky. After the accident he sets out on his own journey across Mahihkan Lake and a) capsizes his canoe b) learns his tent’s missing a pole and sports a huge, mosquito-welcoming tear, and c) accidentally sets his tent on fire.
Saskatchewan-style tragi-comedy anyone? Mahihkan Lake deftly fills the bill.
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