Readers in Halifax will be familiar with Chris Benjamin from his environmental column in The Coast newspaper, but those weekly dispatches do not hint at the giant storytelling talent unleashed in his first novel, Drive-by Saviours (Roseway Publishing).
Set in Indonesia and Toronto, it follows Bumi, an ill-starred boy growing up under the Suharto regime, and Mark, a morose Canadian social worker. In alternating chapters, we learn about Bumi and Mark. Bumi invents a new fishing system on his remote island to give the men more time to relax with their children, but it leads to a population of lay about drunks. He dreams about going to school, only to be forced into an education system that rejects his inquisitive mind. Things get worse for Bumi when suspicion falls on him for the unsolved murders of children, compelling him to stage his own death and flee to Canada, packing only his obsessive compulsive disorder.
Poor Mark, meanwhile, is coping with a job that isn’t quite what he’d like to be doing. It gets worse when he discovers a hidden talent for grant writing that lands him his dream job. To top it all off, his relationship with his charming girlfriend, who is a model, is not quite as dreamy as he dreamed. After a blackout sends Toronto into an alternative-universe version of itself, with packed buses chugging along darkened streets as commuters struggle to get home, Mark takes to staring at strangers in public. One of the strangers he stares at is Bumi, freshly stranded in Canada. The two embark on an insightful, darkly funny relationship wherein Mark seeks salvation as Bumi tries to shore up his own collapsing existence.
Despite a few lapses (Bumi’s oceanic journey to Canada seems surprisingly pleasant when contrasted to the real-life summer arrival of Tamil refugees in British Columbia), Benjamin does a superb job of weaving the two tales together in a way that belies legends of the “white man’s burden” to save the world. The lyrical unraveling of Bumi echoes Rohinton Mistry’s sweeping narrative power.
Drive-by Saviours is confident proof that great Atlantic Canadian literature need not involve kilts or Cape Breton. —Jon Tattrie