A few weeks ago, I entered a book-give-away contest at Kevin’s blog, and to my astonishment, I won. Of the three books on offer, I grabbed A Cold Night for Alligators by first-time author, Canadian Nick Crowe. Some reviewers compared the book to the work of Carl Hiaasen. I can’t comment on that as I’ve never read any, but I can say that there’s a touch of Christopher Moore and even Bill Fitzhugh. Chances are that if you like those writers, you’ll enjoy Crowe’s novel. So what is A Cold Night for Alligators? It’s part road trip, part buddy novel, and part mystery. Oh and part innocent Canadian abroad.
The novel’s narrator is Jasper, a twenty-six-year-old man who lives and fights with his girlfriend Kim in the house that used to belong to his parents. Jasper’s father is dead, his mother is in a nursing home, and Jasper’s only brother, Coleman disappeared one night 10 years earlier. Coleman began exhibiting mental problems during his teens and was building a spaceship in the back garden right before he disappeared. Coleman’s disappearance has nagged at Jasper for years as he feels partially responsible.
The novel starts off very strongly with an earnest and believable first person narration from Jasper as he stands on the subway station on a Friday night waiting to catch the train home while listening to his workmate, Phil moaning about his woes:
It had been another riveting day at the office. I spent most of the day aimlessly searching the internet, reading in turn about Scrotum Smasher, a punk rock band from Northern Ontario who released one classic record in 1986 then promptly disbanded, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an affliction caused by a slow-moving virus that destroys memory.
Ok, so we’ve established that Jasper is a slacker, and for that, I liked this open-minded, kind character very much. While Jasper listens with one ear, he’s thinking about his upcoming weekend and the inevitable arguments he’ll have with his long-term girlfriend, Kim. But those arguments never happen. Fate intervenes in the form of a loony and when Jasper wakes up from a coma 7 months later his life has changed. Not only is he horribly injured but his girlfriend has moved on and now lives with her new man, Donny … in Jasper’s house.
Jasper, is a little uncomfortable (nothing more) with his girlfriend finding a new man while he’s in a coma. That, of course, would be bad enough, but that girlfriend ex “party-girl extraordinaire” now “God-botherer” has moved her new man into Jasper’s parents’ home. She seems to be pushing the envelope of decent behaviour, and this also creates a very awkward situation when Jasper comes out of the coma. Again, Jasper seems to roll with it–it’s just not in his nature to hold a grudge or be angry. For these reasons, Jasper’s character is a little too good at times ( he notes that Donny “was being pretty good about the whole thing” and that illustrates how Jasper misses the point at several times throughout the story), but that seems to be the author’s intention.
Jasper has problems adjusting back to his life, but two things happen: he receives a phone call on his birthday from the Fort Myers area of Florida, and while no one speaks on the other end, Jasper is convinced the anonymous caller is his long-lost brother Coleman. Jasper and Coleman spent many childhood summers in Florida, and both boys grew up with a “lifelong love of the Sunshine State.” But then there’s a second phone call–this time from a Florida sheriff who says that a homeless man gave him this number. Jasper is first intrigued and then takes a fishing trip down to Florida with Donny and his hapless, burping friend, Duane (read: shit magnet) to see if he can trace Coleman.
The road trip is peppered with bizarre characters, but that’s nothing to what awaits them in Florida. Here’s Jasper arriving at Aunt Val’s isolated ramshackle place which she shares with Rolly Lee–former front man for the Fort Myers band General Gator:
When we pulled in at the edge of the open area and parked the truck, I noticed a group of men behind the barn. An overweight man with a massively distended bare stomach and matchstick legs was throwing beer bottles while a rough, smoke-smeared artillery of men were taking aim and firing with slingshots and pellet guns. As we got out of the truck, I heard one pop and shatter. There was a chorus of whoops and cheers. I made a mental note that if I had to go looking for an extra truck part, not to do it barefoot.
“Jesus Christ,” Duane said, “your uncle in a fucking militia or something? This is like Waco.”
Donny nodded. His mouth agape. “He really knows how to throw a cookout. There must be sixty people here.” Another ATV blazed into sight from the mud road and did a donut. Two men got off, beers already uncapped.
“Go man go,” Duane shouted. They nodded in our direction and spat as they went past.
A Cold Night for Alligators could be an incredibly dark novel if it were written from a different angle. But with Crowe’s gentle humour and quirky characters–all seen through Jasper’s wondering eyes–the novel is instead an amusing, light read. The plot sagged a bit in the middle and I had problems with the naiveté of one character whose name I can’t mention without giving away too much.
Can’t help but wonder how Floridians would see the book, but from my perspective, Crowe captured swamp culture perfectly. It’s a world of its own. Try going off the beaten track in Florida (I’m not talking about the tourist traps) and see what you find. I’ve seen Water Moccasins ribboning through brackish water, alligators deceptively lazy at the side of the swamp, and on one dark starless night I walked through a field while the air was thick with thousands of shimmering fireflies. This geographical region is unique and mysterious. It’s one of the areas that leaves an imprint on the people who live there, and Nick Crowe captured my memories of the place perfectly.