After an early flutter of interest and comments, you’ve been quiet. I’m hoping that the explanation for this is that you’re in vacation mode and thus away from your laptops and actually travelling; or that you’ve decided to bury yourselves in thrillers and murder mysteries at the edge of a pool, lake or beach; or that you’re either already busy reading some of the fabulous novels that are on our literary itinerary, or busy ferreting out additions to our list from a beloved region or province.
The first stop in my Reading Canada adventure is Alberta.
When David Homel’s suggestion popped up, I found it irresistible and so I dove into Robert Kroetsch’s Governor General’s Award-winning The Studhorse Man, which begins like this:
“Hazard had to get hold of a mare. He was desperate. In an area centered on a string of seven towns he was the only remaining studhorse man, yet in the previous season he had traveled the hundreds of miles of dirt roads in a two-wheeled cart, pulled by his old gelding, leading his beautiful blue beast of a virgin stallion―and he had found not one farmer with a mare that wanted covering.”
As opening’s go, this novel’s is about as testosterone-laced yet inauspicious as you’ll get. The Hazard mentioned is Hazard Lepage (yes, like Lepage glue, that substance known to be linked to the ultimate fate of many horses who’ve outlived their usefulness), and his beautiful blue (soon-to-be ex virgin) stallion, Poseidon. And it is the urgency of Hazard’s mission (both personal and professional) that drives his story.
While it’s impossible, from this passage, to guess the time frame of the novel, the reader is in fact joining up with Hazard at the end of an era: his meanderings through rural Alberta’s prairies, coulees, farmlands and villages are at times interrupted by his collisions with urban Alberta, by way of Calgary, and especially Edmonton.
In a rather academic essay which serves as an introduction to the novel in the University of Alberta Press’ 2004 edition of the book (featuring a purple and pink pop art cover that clearly gives advance warning that this is anything but a Louis L’Amour novel), Aritha van Herk explains that:
“[…] Alberta at the end of World War II was feeling its oats. Bustling with soldiers and new mechanization, it was a protean space, indeterminate and shifting, getting ready for the 1947 Leduc oil strike that would make the horse truly obsolete.”
Yet, in spite of the actual timeline, the world Hazard inhabits is as much a product of his own stubborn fancifulness as it is of the mythologizing pen of the novel’s lunatic narrator, Demeter Proudfoot (Hazard’s secret rival and perhaps his greatest admirer) who writes, naked, in his bathtub at the Provincial Asylum in Ponoka where he is incarcerated.
Hazard’s trials and tribulations through Alberta rival those of Odysseus and Don Quixote combined. While Martha Proudfoot, his virginal and very much faithful fiancée of thirteen years (her loyalty is tested even beyond that of the mythic Penelope!) waits for his return, Hazard’s picaresque quest takes him on one of the bawdiest, rip roaringest, libidinous journeys ever conceived.
It begins with Hazard buried under a pile of dead horse bones in a boxcar; stalls for a while at the Home for Incurables where he is introduced by a nun named Sister Raphael to a flighty group of poker players known simply as Miss Boxer, Torbay, Stiff and Hole (yes, you read correctly), after which he travels a distance with his own Sancho Panza, an alcoholic magnet for catastrophe named Eugene Utter.
Throughout, Hazard dutifully visits the beds of the Lady, P. Cockburn, who is the assistant curator of the wax museum housed in the Legislative Building in Edmonton; of Mrs. Lank (“the ugliest woman he ever laid eyes on […]. There was no let up.”), and barely escapes with his life from the bed of the Calypso-like Marie Eshpeter.
The novel is wild and woolly and ballsy. It is also filled with the lovely rhythms and inventiveness of poetry. And depending on the characters you choose to root for, it’s either a tragedy or a tragicomedy.
By the novel’s end, Hazard’s obsessive quest for immortality through the perpetuation of his blue stallion’s bloodline blurs the line between man and beast, and the reader begins to wonder whether the stallion Poseidon of this tale is merely Hazard’s avatar.
Hazard’s story swings between life and death; lust and longing; testosterone, estrus and sterility; freedom and entrapment.
Reading the story of Hazard Lepage, the Albertan studhorse man of French Canadian descent, offers a glimpse into another Alberta, where winters are cold, appetites are lusty and happiness is fleeting to the vainglorious.