While many readers know about the American porters of George Pullman, Suzette Mayr’s eloquent new novel, winner of Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, chronicles the life of an attendant on the trans-Canadian railway. One thing not different was the job was filled almost exclusively by Black men, who were subject to the whims of riders and faced much racism on the job. In the case of Baxter, he carries an extra burden, as he is also closeted, and burns with the memories of past encounters and the constant fear that any wrong move could lead to losing his job. His dream is to be a dentist, and if there is levity in the story, it is in Baxter’s propensity to focus on the teeth of the folks around him. Through these details, George and his plight are brought to vibrant life. And how can I not love a story where one of the referenced works is an Eaton’s Department Store catalog?— Daniel Goldin
Baxter works the trains as they run from Toronto to Winnipeg, through Calgary and Banff to Vancouver. Passengers on board wrestle with the details of their lives: hats and weddings, books and paperwork, drinks and cigars, childhood loss and bad telegrams, boots to be shined, a scrutinized pocket watch, communication with the dead. Baxter continuously serves them, ever watchful, needing perfection. Ten more demerits will get him fired, and a black man hiding his desire for other men has plenty of reasons to fear being targeted by whites with money. Endless patience is required to be a sleeping car porter. He's always exhausted, but it's a job, and he's saving, determined to pay for school and become a dentist who will one day be important. Then he'll be the one riding. For now, his dreams keep him alive, and time spent with people shoved together in tight spaces can shake up whole worlds. In the end, it's a little girl who fully reveals him. She’s just lost her mother and won't sleep, clinging to Baxter instead. This is intensely researched historical fiction that doesn’t feel like history. It feels like heart.— Tim McCarthy
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2024 DUBLIN LITERARY AWARD
WINNER OF THE 2022 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE
WINNER OF THE CITY OF CALGARY W.O. MITCHELL BOOK PRIZE
WINNER OF THE 2023 GEORGES BUGNET AWARD FOR FICTION
FINALIST FOR THE 2023 GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD FOR ENGLISH-LANGUAGE FICTION
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY TOP 20 LITERARY FICTION BOOKS OF 2022
OPRAH DAILY: BOOKS TO READ BY THE FIRE
THE GLOBE 100: THE BEST BOOKS OF 2022
CBC BOOKS: THE BEST CANADIAN FICTION OF 2022
SHORTLISTED FOR THE CAROL SHIELDS PRIZE FOR FICTION
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2022 REPUBLIC OF CONSCIOUSNESS PRIZE
When a mudslide strands a train, Baxter, a queer Black sleeping car porter, must contend with the perils of white passengers, ghosts, and his secret love affair
The Sleeping Car Porter brings to life an important part of Black history in North America, from the perspective of a queer man living in a culture that renders him invisible in two ways. Affecting, imaginative, and visceral enough that you'll feel the rocking of the train, The Sleeping Car Porter is a stunning accomplishment.
Baxter's name isn't George. But it's 1929, and Baxter is lucky enough, as a Black man, to have a job as a sleeping car porter on a train that crisscrosses the country. So when the passengers call him George, he has to just smile and nod and act invisible. What he really wants is to go to dentistry school, but he'll have to save up a lot of nickel and dime tips to get there, so he puts up with "George."
On this particular trip out west, the passengers are more unruly than usual, especially when the train is stalled for two extra days; their secrets start to leak out and blur with the sleep-deprivation hallucinations Baxter is having. When he finds a naughty postcard of two queer men, Baxter's memories and longings are reawakened; keeping it puts his job in peril, but he can't part with the postcard or his thoughts of Edwin Drew, Porter Instructor.
"Suzette Mayr's The Sleeping Car Porter offers a richly detailed account of a particular occupation and time--train porter on a Canadian passenger train in 1929--and unforcedly allows it to illuminate the societal strictures imposed on black men at the time--and today. Baxter is a secretly-queer and sleep-deprived porter saving up for dental school, working a system that periodically assigns unexplained demerits, and once a certain threshold is reached, the porter loses his job. Thus, success is impossible, the best one can do is to fail slowly. As Baxter takes a cross-continental run, the boarding passengers have more secrets than an Agatha Christie cast, creating a powder keg on train tracks. The Sleeping Car Porter is an engaging and illuminating novel about the costs of work, service, and secrets." - Keith Mosman, Powell's Books
"I thought The Sleeping Car Porter was fantastic It strikes a balance between being about the struggles of being black and gay at that time while not being too heavy handed with it. I enjoyed his constant mental math on how many demerits he might receive for each infraction. The reader really gets a sense of the conflict that Baxter is going through. I really liked reading a book from the perspective of a porter." - Hunter Gillum, Beaverdale Books