Many of us have made some kind of trek through the USA by car. Maybe we decide it's time to see the Grand Canyon, or we just want to escape the cold or high gas prices, so we light out for American territory. When gifted and curious writers like Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds do so, they turn a pleasure trip into an assignment. Too bad for them, lucky for us.
Whether it's a sign of a symbiotic marriage or of seasoned writers crafting a seamless travel collage, the narrative in Breakfast at the Exit Café flows as easily as a new car on an empty highway. The transitions between travel-partner-authors never feel clunky or truncated, but rather like one long conversation between mates. We know who's talking by the clever device of starting a new voice with a word beginning with either "W" or "M," code for Wayne or Merilyn.
Each author has unique quests and discoveries: For Grady, it's trees, the perfect Bloody Caesar, his African-American ancestry; for Simonds, it's a cozy festive room in which to spend Christmas, perfect hash browns and parades. Their shared passion for bird-watching has them braking suddenly throughout their journey to gawk at condors, shrikes and what could just possibly "the last remaining ivory-billed woodpecker on earth." While preparing for a trip to Alabama by reading about Martin Luther King Jr.'s march to Montgomery, Simonds is interrupted by Grady's search for his birding glasses. "History and natural history," she muses, summing up their common ground, "Collusion and collision. One way or other, they're always vying with each other for our attention."
Books also take a front seat in this car trip. While unconcerned with planning an itinerary, Simonds and Grady stock up on recounts of earlier forays into the American psyche by authors such as Jonathan Raban, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Doris Lessing, Charles Dickens, Vita Sackville-West, Rudyard Kipling, Franz Kafka, Thomas Wolfe and Michael Ondaatje. And several rest stops are readily prolonged in order to scour the shelves of independent bookstores in small towns, with the spoils read back and forth across twin beds in mom-and-pop motel rooms later that same evening. Who needs TV when you've got each other? "Merilyn and I are perhaps a little exiled but not the least bit lonely," Grady muses. We benefit from their shared company; we never have to slog through long lapses of existential crises that often arise on long solitary journeys.
However, we do get glimpses of domestic frustration and compromise, but these contribute to much delightful humour. Grady is a bad navigator. "The general rule is, if my instinct tells me to go one way," he admits, "we should probably go the opposite direction. This makes for some awkward moments at intersections. Merilyn, in contrast, has developed the art of navigation into a virtual science. She is always sayings things like: 'Three minutes from now you'll see a water tower with Forest City painted on it, and a sign saying Denning 38; turn east there.' To which I reply: 'Would that be left or right?' "
And when they can't make up their minds about where to go next and Simonds wants to come to mutual decision, Grady responds with; "Whatever you say." "This is what drives me crazy," she says. "In Wayne's world, it's either his way or my way. I want us to talk about it and make it our way. … That's when it comes to me. Women are from Canada. Men are from the States."
Simonds pronouncement is one of many the authors share about the nature of the Canadian psyche. And, although the action - and there's plenty, thanks to freak snowstorms, a leaping deer and diehard racists - takes place entirely in the U.S., these insights are what makes Breakfast a decidedly Canadian book. From the first kilometre, Grady and Simonds unrelentingly examine the meaning behind every monument, road sign, headline, advertisement and colloquialism they encounter.
And the kinds of the conclusions they arrive at are the kinds that can only be made by members of an outsider culture peering from its less influential, more internationalist, less Disneyfied perspective. When he realizes that the aroma in a market is actually not authentic but piped in, Grady concludes that "America is essentially an entrepreneurial culture: the sizzle is the steak, because, after all, if you buy the sizzle, the steak comes with it. Canada's, in contrast, is a primary-producing culture: we'll buy the steak and hope to get a little sizzle with it. But we know we can't eat sizzle."
But it's the individuals, not the collective, who leave the strongest impression on the travellers. As they draw closer to the border, Simonds finds herself missing the overt friendliness of the people who went out of their way to make their journey pleasant: a mechanic, a state trooper, a hotel clerk. "In moments, we will be with our friends in Canada," she muses, "but already I ache for those places where strangers speak to us without reserve, where a man we've known for five minutes spreads his arms wide and grins, 'Well, then, we're all of us connected.' "
Grady sites Harold Bloom's list of quintessential American classics and notes that "everything in America seems to be about redemption." In Breakfast at the Exit Café, Grady and Simonds manage to redeem Americans as more than "arrogant and ignorant." But they can only do it by meeting individual Americans, face to face, an act that renders sweeping generalizations and clichés useless. In so doing, they also manage to define Canadian identity as something more than just anti-Americanism. Which, in the end, redeems us too.
Madonna Hamel's documentary about Lhasa de Sela, the Montreal-based singer who lived a third of her life on a bus crisscrossing the United States and Mexico, will be aired in January on CBC's Inside the Music.