Review: ‘The Sleeping Car Porter’

Suzette Mayr’s award-winning book arrives right on time

Image by: Rida Chaudhry
The novel embarks on a historical cross-country journey.

Trains, queerness, and dentistry don’t seem like they should go together, but in Suzette Mayr’s Giller Prize-awarded novel The Sleeping Car Porter, the seemingly divergent converge.

The Sleeping Car Porter recounts the story of a queer Black train porter, Baxter, who works in a sleeping car to fund his dream of attending dentistry school. It’s a book centred around the abject and the revelation of what is supposed to remain unseen. Yet, after winning the largest literary award in Canada, the novel and its themes have skyrocketed into visibility.

A journey across 1929 Canada ensues, filled with an eclectic cast of characters, romance, and much talk about pre-first molars. It’s wild, weird, and makes the reader feel that they, like Baxter, are suffering from a terrible lack of sleep.

The novel’s prose is sparse. Its brevity starkly contrasts Baxter’s endless days and nights. There’s a ceaseless wandering, a weird stationary motion, as Baxter remains inert on “the fastest train in the country,” hurtling across the Canadian landscape.

Mayr’s style and writing are effective at communicating The Sleeping Car Porter’s themes. She leaves lines just as they should, revealing more from what she doesn’t say than what she does. The novel paints beautiful portraits that speak for themselves. 

The novel meditates on how Baxter is rendered completely marginal as a train car porter, restraining his appetites—sexually and for food—to endlessly fulfill the needs of others. It’s a fascinating exploration of who’s allowed to be visible and who must be invisible. 

And then there are teeth. Teeth are very weird. They’re tools of consumption that just exist in our mouths. Mayr’s use of them in the story is wonderfully done, showing us how they provide a sanctuary for Baxter, giving him a goal to pursue and a means to reclaim some agency as he examines and makes judgements on people’s teeth.

They’re both gross and fascinating, revealing details about characters that they may otherwise wish to conceal. However, amongst the musings on teeth and the endlessly chugging train, the novel’s plot tends to meander along.

The Sleeping Car Porter is an incredibly sleepy book: you will feel as Baxter feels.Maybe that’s the point, but it’s hard to focus on the book’s substance when it’s putting you to sleep.

The novel is experimental, and how well its experiments work will likely depend on the reader. It’s engaging to feel how Baxter feels, but it can seem a little tiresome.

The Sleeping Car Porter is technically brilliant. It’s wonderfully written, and its characters pop and burst with life. It’s experimental and weird, and there are things here that will capture and move readers. It threatens to become directionless like the train Baxter is on,  but it’s ultimately pulled forward beautifully by its characters and its incredible affective power.

Suzette Mayr will be coming to Queen’s for the Queen’s Giller Prize event on March 23. More information and updates can be found on the Queen’s English department Instagram.


Fiction, Giller Prize, Literature

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