Drive and Desire| Review of “The Motorcyclist” by George Elliot Clarke (HarperCollins)


It is a universal feeling among humans to get away from it all and start fresh and new. To improve ourselves by going to a different place or being with a different person. But sometimes taking that first step is a hard one to do for so many reasons. Those are some of the thoughts and emotions George Elliot Clarke brilliantly explores in his novel The Motorcyclist.

Page 12

The ignition key is in the centre position and the neutral indicator shows a green-for-go glow. Exultant, Carl leaps up, thrusts down, kick-starts the engine that now roars and snorts, born again, bawling, and ready for brawling. He buckles on the helmet; the red, yellow, and white painted flames, licking back from the black face opening, look as proud and as incendiary as the flag of any new African state. Yep: here be liberated Ghana, a one-man motorcade.

Carlyle – a.k.a. Carl – Black whistles as he manoeuvers his machine over the gullies of this dirt driveway in which every rainstorm gouges new furrows. He nods at all who pass, all who eye him, handsome, with a lean, iron-dark frame, fierce eyes, and a steel-jaw look. His speech sounds suave; his wardrobe models dapper.

The man be Coloured, but not colonized, not totally. Unlike his buddies, he can escape, temporarily, the Drudgery that traps so many “Nofaskosha” Negroes: from the red-uniformed man with a flashlight, ushering kids into a cinema (the closest a dark dude can get to being a cop), to the shoeshine boy, or waitress, whose tips are the reward of a sultry smile, to the folks aching in Labour that shatters souls. In contrast, Carl can be a cavalier, a “cat’ privy to cathouses.

This is a unique novel for sure. Clarke has taken his father’s (William Lloyd Clarke) diary and used it to ‘inform’ this book. And it is the descriptions that builds the empathy with the readers. Set in 1959-60 Halifax, we get to understand what it was like for the senior Clarke to live in that time and era. We feel the racism he endures because of the colour of his skin. We feel the prejudices  he endures because of his parentage. And we feel the slights he endures because of his occupation. But most of all, we feel the enjoyment he gets when he straddles his beloved BMW motorcycle and drives out onto the open road.

Page 85-86

Astride the BMW, even when he’s bent over the fuel tank, trying to duck the tonguing wind that washes under, over around his helmet and his jacket, Carl feels erect, like a gunfighter in full gallop, stream-lining with his stallion, ready for the showdown, the high-noon or midnight fray. His legs are sturdy wishbones and his arms are Frankenstein-monster outstretched and steel-hard. His manhood too, even at rest, is cocked. Liz II, his “queen of queans,” transforms Carl into a black-leather Priapus, a dark roustabout darting cupidic. or so he doth believe.

Aboard that machine, he imagines that he’s Jesse Owens, streaking always to Victory, with style, with panache, with a kind word for all women and any every tipper. Liberation is going, floating, flying; i.e., feeling actually free.

The style in this book is lyrical and smooth. The reader seems to float from sentence to sentence or from scene to scene without a sense of interruption or break. Even the elements of the book that are meant to be dark or upsetting are written in such a manner that they seem slip into the reader’s mind with ease and are hard to forget.

Page 105

Mack was mishmash – like a black-ink typewriter page that explodes into red-ink handwriting because a ribbon has petered out. His face was porcelain grammar given a jagged, cursive erasure. Mack’s body implanted an honest nest on the roof of a minister’s car, the preacher’s spouse dead within. Mack’s poundage (e = mc2’d into tonnage) had smacked hard onto the roof, buckling it, so the underlying steel had hammered the Mrs. Minister’s skull, bashing her dead. Beside the torn horse, Mack’s bike looked like a tender mechanism, too easily mutilated.

Only an engineer could repair the grisly mix of glass, metal, horse, wood, rubber. The waste of animal and wreckage of human beings and the mutual destruction of Jet Age and Stone Age machinery. Only God could survey the scarlet-washed accident and identify the resurrection. Killud – the Estonian word for “collected fragments” – suited the jumble and carnage. Shards of glass, a motorcycle wheel protruding from the horse’s rump, so much furious bleeding, slipshod, the ache of smoke, tears throbbing amid car and motorcycle pieces, the chrome mixed in with the steed’s deep, black breast.

Then the Quebec car was stopping. The driver and lady could see terrible biffures all about. A man had buried himself in a car roof, and a woman below it would need burial herself. Everyone seemed to be in a deep morphine sleep. A farmer and un nègre (Carl) were both emitting electroshock hollers. Metal parts, raw junk, goggles of glass for horse eyes, shackles of chrome on the felled biker: only a balm of fog could pacify. Everywhere was detached pissing: tears, blood. The minister, garbed for church, was, instead attending suddenly his wife’s funeral. Oil and gas and horse urine seemed perfumes as heavy as lead. The air was strident with stink. Unnerving. The animal showed the convoluted guts of a snake.

Carl felt drastic numbness. He went to Mack. No breath in the bones, no fever in the flesh:just breaks in the bones and wounds on the flesh.

George Elliot Clarke has certain taken one man’s thoughts, fears, anguish, desires and dreams and made them vivid in his novel The Motorcyclist. It is a lyrical read well worth perusing.


Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for The Motorcyclist

Link to the site of Canada’s Poet Laureate which George Elliot Clarke currently holds this position

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