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The Sleeping Car Porter (edició 2022)
de Suzette Mayr (Autor)
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The Sleeping Car Porter de Suzette Mayr
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I loved this book. The author has given us a very detailed, nuanced portrayal of a man. Baxter is a porter on a sleeping car. His working conditions are abominable -- on calf 24/7, having to pay his employer for meals, and for thefts by passenger, and subject to demerits, termination without notice and racism from both passengers and his employer. He is sleep deprived, trying to do his job, and to hide the fact that he is gay. I could really sense his anxiety, also his compassion, and his resilience in pursuing his goal of attending dental school. The book ends on a note of hope...and I wish Baxter all the best! ( )
Suzette Mayr’s Giller Prize-winning novel, The Sleeping Car Porter, is the gripping tale of R.T. Baxter, who, in 1929, is working as a porter for CP Rail. Baxter is black, a Jamaican immigrant come to Canada in search of a better life. Baxter’s story takes place on a summertime Montreal-Vancouver run and casts a blazing spotlight on his vulnerability and the appalling conditions such workers were forced to tolerate. His position as porter leaves Baxter exposed: to the moods, whims and prejudices of (mostly white) passengers, to capricious company rules that require him to be available at all times of the day and night and survive on catnaps and covert dozing. Passenger theft is common, and it’s the porters who bear responsibility for any linens or other company property that goes missing during their shift, the value of which is deducted from their wages. In addition, after a run, the company assesses “demerits” against each porter’s record based on customer complaints and/or a supervisor’s observation of service deficiencies. Once a porter attains a plateau of demerits, he’s dismissed. Thus, Baxter, who is trying to save money for dental school, lives in a constant state of anxiety: scrambling to satisfy the passengers’ requests no matter how outlandish, accepting disrespect and outright abuse with a smile, aware that his every act, every glance, every word is being scrutinized and judged. In fact, Baxter is a nervous wreck, since he’s also hiding his homosexuality, which, if revealed, would render him a criminal for the simple human act of seeking sexual release. Mayr’s narrative makes much of Baxter’s sleeplessness, which as the journey lengthens becomes acute, leaving him in a zombie state, eyesore, hallucinating and in danger of tripping over his own feet. Then, outside Banff, the train is delayed by a mudslide and sits motionless in the heat of summer for several days, fraying the patience of passengers and staff alike. Mayr’s concise narrative generates considerable empathy for Baxter and his browbeaten colleagues, whose low social status and demeaning position of servitude allow no recourse for the mistreatment they routinely endure. The Sleeping Car Porter is an essential read, a powerful, heartbreaking novel that never lectures and manages to illuminate black and queer history in a way that is original and highly entertaining.
Not everything that you see on a sleeping car of the fastest intercontinental train in 1929 should be seen. Baxter has been a Porter on such a train for a while, long enough to have earned enough demerits that his position is constantly at risk. You can earn demerits for seeing things and for not seeing things. But when you’ve gone more than 48 hours without sleep tending to passengers, some of things you see are of your own making. Blink and sometimes they will disappear. But what about the illicit postcard Baxter has found in the WC? Is it real or unreal? And what difference will that make if having it in his possession leads to his dismissal and the loss of his dream of going to dental school?
Suzette Mayr paints a marvellously surreal portrait of the sleep-deprived Baxter as his struggles with his obligations and his desires and the very real consequences of extended lack of sleep. His charges on his car are all extreme in one way or another. Mayr makes his anxiety palpable. But also his genuine care for many of his charges, such as the grieving young child, Esme. It’s impossible not to feel that Baxter is hurtling toward his doom, both personally and professionally as he crosses the country. And yet, Mayr catches a resilience in him that may ultimately signal the possibility of hope.
Despite the sleepiness of her protagonist, you won’t find your eyelids drooping as you read the gorgeous, poetic prose that Mayr conjures.
This novel won the 2022 Giller Prize for Fiction so my expectations were high; unfortunately, those expectations were not met.
R. T. Baxter is a young Black man who works as a train porter in 1929. There’s a short chapter tracing his trip from Toronto to Winnipeg, but the majority of the book focuses on a Montreal to Vancouver trip which is waylaid by a mudslide outside of Banff. Undernourished and sleep deprived, he struggles with disturbing hallucinations and completing all his duties.
I appreciated learning about the working conditions of Black porters. Blacks were lucky to have these jobs, but a sleeping car is, as Baxter describes it, a “luxurious prison.” Except for short breaks to nap, a porter is always on call. He must buy meals from the employer, is financially liable for stolen linens and towels, and is at the mercy of passengers whose complaints can result in demerit points. Demerits are given for “disloyalty, dishonesty, immorality, insubordination, incompetence, gross carelessness, untruthfulness.” At one point, Baxter receives two demerits for insolence, but he isn’t told which passenger complained. He must be on a lookout for undercover spotters who are hired to report employee infractions. If a porter accumulates too many such points, he is dismissed.
Of course, the porters also face racism. Baxter, for example, is addressed as Boy and George. One passenger even asks him to sing and dance. He cannot, however, react in any way; he must remain cheerful and deferential. Baxter comes to think of himself as “a clicking Robot, created to serve . . . a whirring automaton.” Because Baxter is gay, he is especially vulnerable since homosexual acts were illegal.
There is not much of a plot. Very little happens. The mudslide doesn’t happen until halfway through the book. The focus is on Baxter’s unrelenting exhaustion and his constant fretting about receiving demerit points and losing his job. When there is a major development, it is quickly resolved so tension is not maintained. There are touches of humour in the nicknames Baxter gives his passengers: Pulp and Paper, Punch and Judy, Spider, and Blancmange.
What I also found surprising is that the development of the protagonist lacks the depth I expected. We know details about Baxter and his life (i.e. he loves science fiction, he wants to attend dentistry school, his parents objected to his effeminate manner), but it’s difficult to name many personality traits.
This is not a bad book, but it didn’t resonate with me. Its strong suit is the historical details; otherwise, it is not exceptional.
Note: Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski).
This book earned a Giller-prize award (2022) and as such is probably very insightfully written by an accomplished author. For me, it was a choppy writing style with staccato observations that slung emotional arrows on nearly every page. A difficult story which brought forward terrible injustices and racial prejudices that are so emotionally upsetting.
Not surprisingly, my star rating is heavily influenced by the turmoil the narrative invoked. I want to enjoy a book even when it is angst-ridden and reveals social injustice ~ like Walt Harrington's Crossings: A White Man's Journey Into Black America, which was a story of prejudice and racial discrimination, yet I was comfortable in allotting 4-stars. Suzette Mayr’s novel certainly illuminated the historical plight of black Canadian train porters and brought forward the awareness that we as a country are definitely not out of the woods yet.
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WINNER OF THE 2022 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE PUBLISHERS WEEKLY TOP 20 LITERARY FICTION BOOKS OF 2022 OPRAH DAILY: BOOKS TO READ BY THE FIRE THE GLOBE 100: THE BEST BOOKS OF 2022 CBC BOOKS: THE BEST CANADIAN FICTION OF 2022 When a mudslide strands a train, Baxter, a queer Black sleeping car porter, must contend with the perils of white passengers, ghosts, and his secret love affair The Sleeping Car Porter brings to life an important part of Black history in North America, from the perspective of a queer man living in a culture that renders him invisible in two ways. Affecting, imaginative, and visceral enough that you'll feel the rocking of the train, The Sleeping Car Porter is a stunning accomplishment. Baxter's name isn't George. But it's 1929, and Baxter is lucky enough, as a Black man, to have a job as a sleeping car porter on a train that crisscrosses the country. So when the passengers call him George, he has to just smile and nod and act invisible. What he really wants is to go to dentistry school, but he'll have to save up a lot of nickel and dime tips to get there, so he puts up with "George." On this particular trip out west, the passengers are more unruly than usual, especially when the train is stalled for two extra days; their secrets start to leak out and blur with the sleep-deprivation hallucinations Baxter is having. When he finds a naughty postcard of two queer men, Baxter's memories and longings are reawakened; keeping it puts his job in peril, but he can't part with the postcard or his thoughts of Edwin Drew, Porter Instructor. "Suzette Mayr's The Sleeping Car Porter offers a richly detailed account of a particular occupation and time-train porter on a Canadian passenger train in 1929-and unforcedly allows it to illuminate the societal strictures imposed on black men at the time-and today. Baxter is a secretly-queer and sleep-deprived porter saving up for dental school, working a system that periodically assigns unexplained demerits, and once a certain threshold is reached, the porter loses his job. Thus, success is impossible, the best one can do is to fail slowly. As Baxter takes a cross-continental run, the boarding passengers have more secrets than an Agatha Christie cast, creating a powder keg on train tracks. The Sleeping Car Porter is an engaging and illuminating novel about the costs of work, service, and secrets." - Keith Mosman, Powell's Boo
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Classificació Decimal de Dewey (DDC)813.54Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
LCC (Clas. Bibl. Congrés EUA)
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