Mahihkan Lake

Saskatoon StarPhoenix, December 19, 2015

Mahihkan Lake is a meditation, often leading to heated discussion, on truth and family memory, on the nature of art and one’s perceptions of it compared to someone else’s, and on guilt and atonement, all of these things channelled into a fast-moving mystery story by seasoned writer Rod MacIntyre.

MacIntyre, well known for his Young Adult literature, has recently left years in La Ronge behind him to move to southern B.C., but he sets his new novel for adults right here in Saskatchewan, both in a city much like Saskatoon and in a northern resort, the name of which is the novel’s title. A brother and sister come unwillingly together to do something about the ashes of their late, adopted older brother. Dianne is a successful advertising artist who’s at the top of her game, professionally, but not doing so well with her teenage daughter. In fact, things are horrible. She’s just been to pick up her long-suffering, often-dependant brother, Dennis, from rehab where’s he’s been trying, again, to kick the booze. He was a big deal singer-songwriter with a hit album, once, way back, but his singing partner died, and he hasn’t found his mojo since.

The last time Dennis saw his older brother, Dave, the mechanic and biker showed up at Dennis’s door to deliver a message to Dianne. Dave’s orders not to open it were ignored, and Dennis is completely puzzled by his brother’s cryptic words. After he leaves, Dave heads north to Mahihkan Lake and on the way “picked his fight with the side draft, lost, got tangled under the truck, bounced around like a bloody paper cup,” and died. Now the courts have put a chunk of the blame on semi-truck driver Harold who probably had his attention diverted at the crucial time Da ve tried to pass him on a grid road.

So Dennis and Dianne head for Mahihkan Lake, Dave’s ashes between them, to try and come up with some way of honouring their brother. Meanwhile, Harold, out of a job and a driver’s licence, gets the only living relative who likes him to drop him and his canoe off at a north-flowing river so that he, too, can head for his old cabin at — in a coincidence usually reserved for real life — Mahihkan Lake. The siblings aren’t actually aware of who was driving that truck; indeed, Dennis believes Dave died in a ritual suicide, and Harold is not aware of any connections to the man they say he killed.

MacIntyre structures his novel so we go back and forth between the brother and sister and Harold. As you can imagine, with two people to spar against one another, their chapters are longer than Harold’s who has only his self-hatred and recrimination to keep him company. Dennis and Dianne get right to work, going into long conversations about how art works and who values it, to short jabs and diatribes about who remembers what in a family and why someone doesn’t remember something important. And don’t be mistaken about the art talks: they usually start or end with one of the siblings wondering if Dennis was any good in his day, and if he could be good again, and how much the business has changed, now excluding simple troubadours like him.

But Dennis doesn’t need help with exclusion. Like millions of alcoholics before him and since, he finds a quiet place to drink and hate himself, sequestering himself in a room above an auto body shop with a skipped out roommate so he can badmouth AA and his whole miserable life.

Dianne is no saint either, so she and Dennis get to heap coals on each other’s personal hells, trying to figure out what happened in their lives, how Dad died, why Mom was always beating Dave, and what, exactly, happened to Dave, anyway. As they strip off bandages and open wounds, both figuratively and literally, Harold, an incompetent outdoorsman, gets to be alone with himself and think about his failed marriage and the time, for instance, he locked his wife in the basement overnight. These are not pleasant people. But in the right hands, people like this are just the kind you want to read about, and MacIntyre certainly keeps the pages turning, one small revelation after another tugging the three toward some sort of showdown.

MacIntyre knows these people inside out, and he knows the northern bush country and the music world of small clubs and bars and one-album wonders. His one-paragraph description of a small-town bar, its smell, its colours, its pool table, and its empty promise is a gem of economy and rightness and a model for aspiring writers.

MacIntyre also does not answer all questions he raises. That would be too easy and not at all like real life.

What he does get at are the complications of family dynamics, the who and what of people’s memories, the how and why of birth order, gender, favouritism, and how some families just have a lot of hard times in their lives. While he does all this, he moves three very imperfect people across the Saskatchewan landscape as they try to figure out just what went wrong with their lives and if there’s anything in their unhappy past that can help them understand and fix themselves. The journey is the story here.