If there is one genre of art almost guaranteed to raise hackles (mine, anyway), it’s that of ‘liberal guilt.’
You know the genre. There’s a person who feels guilty, and takes it upon him or herself to somehow ‘better’ the life of someone less fortunate. When done wrong (and it has been done so, so wrong), it usually takes the form of overly-sentimentalized Hollywood hokum (The Blind Side, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, etc). The kind of movie, book, or television show that ends with the audience so damned pleased with themselves, feeling themselves better for having shed a tear for those plucky immigrants/inner-city students/sick kids. And please don’t think ill of me, I promise this is not a conservative screed disguised as a book review; I’m as lefty as all get out, but I call shenanigans on such saccharine drivel.
The genre does have highlights, works that somehow transcend the genre with though, imagination, and a lack of bathos. Friday Night Lights, for example, presents realistic portrayals of all involved without over-varnishing of the travails of everyday life (and Ihate football, so for me to watch it, it must be freakin’ good). Dead Man Walking was a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways, but gripped me from beginning to end. Half Nelson found a good balance.
My point? It’s a fine line between writing a theme and bashing people over the head with it. And I should know; I mean, have you even read Shelf Monkey? Sledgehammer, baby.
Drive-by Saviours, by newbie author Chris Benjamin, skirts this line time and again. But through skill and subtlety of character, Benjamin for the most part pulls it off.
Drive-by tells in alternating chapters the stories of two men; Bumi, an Indonesian immigrant, and Mark, a Toronto social worker. Bumi’s life has been one of hardship; brought up in the island of Rilaka, he is removed from his family to enter a newly-established residential school. Bumi is eager to learn, intelligent to a fault, but he suffers from variety of obsessive compulsive tics that make it difficult for him to concentrate, and earn him a reputation as a fairly strange man: his incessant purification rituals that crossed the line toward self-abuse; his long morning routine of dressing, undressing, and redressing multiple times until he got it just right … His use of elbows and feet instead of hands, which were often protected in plastic bags; his strange and complex series of patterned twitches … his harassment of strangers as they passed on foot, writing down their names and purposes or fretting inconsolably if they refused to provide the information.
Through a series of mistakes and assumptions, Bumi is forced to flee for his life, leaving his family and taking up a life as an illegal immigrant in Canada.
Mark, on the other hand, is a fairly well-off Canadian with little in common with Bumi save a less than perfect childhood. His job as a social worker at a community health centre is undemanding, Mark writing up proposals and plans, seeing people less and less; his clients would “give me the Coles Notes version of all their problems and I made suggestions, like a drive-by saviour.”
It doesn’t take a genius to see that these two men will cross paths, and it’s a tribute to Benjamin’s talent as a writer that the trek to that point is almost sheer pleasure. Perhaps by necessity, Bumi’s tale is far more interesting, and Benjamin pulls off the neat trick of taking a potentially dark tale and never succumbing to despair. Bumi’s life is harsh, but the bleakness never overwhelms either Bumi or the reader. Mark’s life, likely more familiar to the average North American reader, is more comfortable than Bumi’s, but his life too is full of pitfalls and disappointments. Benjamin is working with a universal theme here, the idea that happiness comes from within, and it is how we strive against obstacles that defines us. It’s a far more palatable motif than the aforementioned theme of ‘let’s help those who cannot help themselves and feel better about ourselves as a result.’
And when the two finally meet, not as social worker and client but as two figures on public transport, Benjamin takes great pains to avoid any clear-cut resolutions. Mark understands Bumi’s dilemma, and recognizes his OCD, but such a revelation does not lead to triumphant resolution. Bumi appreciates Mark’s efforts, but knows that his life in Canada is not the life he wishes.
At times, Drive-by Saviours veers perilously close to polemic, telling rather than showing, especially with regard to Mark’s efforts to help Bumi, but Benjamin’s novel only uses their relationship as an anchor to tell the stories of two sad and lonely men, each trying to find their place in the world. While it’s a common theme, it’s only as strong as the storyteller, and Benjamin proves himself a natural.
–Jan 8, 2011