Long-distance cycling--touring--is a risky venture. Writing a novel about a lone cyclist's trip through eastern Canada: also risky. As with similar stories---whether on wheels, in a car or on foot---arguably two big things have to happen: First, the physical journey has to engage interest and, second, evoke the life of the rider.
"Journey stories are among the oldest modes of storytelling," novelist Darryl Whetter says, from his Advocate Harbour home on the Minas Basin, northwestern Nova Scotia. While part of a narrative tradition, the bicycle at the core of his new novel, The Push and the Pull, adds something new, he says. "The touring cyclist is carrying their home with them."
Whetter researched part of his pedalling protagonist's route to try to understand the self-containment and the demands on body and mind that a long haul would have on Andrew Day. "I did some research rides," Whetter says. He attempted a trip from Fredericton to Kingston in early May last year---a ride aborted because of bad weather including snow---while his character sets off from Halifax for Kingston.
In the novel, the transition from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick ratchets up the tension early on in Andrew's journey. "On many cycling blogs, New Brunswick is considered the biggest challenge." It's just up and down, hill after hill, demandingefficient and frequent gear changing plus sudden and sustained thrusts of power, Whetter explains.
Structurally, he gives a rhythm to the book by writing in short chapters, vignettes of a half-page or so, sometimes a little more, while some chapters spool out smoothly for several pages. To some it'll make sense, while others may struggle. It's a chancethe author takes and sticks to in The Push and the Pull.
The longer chapters usually come when Andrew revisits past moments in meaningful relationships to him---principally the memory of his father, Stan, whom he knew for a long time as a very ill man, but also his mother, Stan's ex-wife Pat and Betty, the woman with whom he has his first, real passionate relationship. Betty, however, is away on her own adventure---though she's also a destination point for the rider.
Whetter shows Andrew in a caretaker role with his father, doing simple tasks such as helping him up or getting him to a washroom to take a piss. These are good, often hard scenes to read because of the clear view of the vulnerability of a body laidbare, wasting, while the mind stays sharp and focused.
The recalled exchanges between Andrew and Betty are painful and difficult, too, but for a different reason: They represent the " university mind"laid bare. Perhaps it's a cynical take, but Andrew and Betty can come across as pretentious, all too self-aware, even arrogant. In short, they act just as many of us do our first time on campus. This observation seems to initially surprise Whetter. "They're being both intelligent...and yet we also see and realize what they're not saying." Indeed, there is that mix of experience and inexperience, a naivety about them---their shared love, their world view and the future. Whetter has compassion for the couple as they ride out one of the most significant "periods of transformation" in a young life. "The undergrad experience is significantly under-represented" in Canadian literature, he says. (Compare The Push and the Pullwith Lynn Coady's last novel, Mean Boy.)
Also under-represented are artists-turned-politicians. In Canada there's no tradition of novelists, poets, playwrights, artists or actors pursuing public office. Whetter hopes to break away from the usual political pack as the nominated Green Party candidate in the federal riding of Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley. He's awaiting the election writ to drop, to propose and argue electoral reform (proportional versus the current first-past-the-post system) and sensible, sane approaches to the environment, energy and food production. "I really do believe we're approaching crises," he says.
The writing life can inform the political. "Narrative is the art of sequence," hesays, adding that it's time to truly grasp the consequences.