Running on Fumes

by Christian Guay-Poliquin

translated by Jacob Homel

Talonbooks, 2016

For some reason (I can’t think why…), sales of dystopian literature have soared in the US recently, with titles such as The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 flying off the shelves. While perhaps not quite in the same vein, Christian Guay-Poliquin’s Running on Fumes offers another possible view of the future, drawing the reader into a world where the power has unexpectedly been turned off, and the priorities of everyday life have shifted from entertainment and consumption to survival. The novel begins with an unnamed narrator sent home from work after the lights go out, and when he later receives a call from his father, an old man slowly losing his mind on the other side of the continent, he decides to simply load his bags into his old, beat-up car and hit the road.

What follows is a road journey across the continent, with kilometre figures in place of chapter headings as the driver gets ever closer to his goal. Along the way, he picks up a couple of hitchers, both of whom have secrets they keep close to their chests. However, he just keeps his eye on the road, hoping to make it to his father’s house before the old man is overtaken by whatever evil is happening in the wider world. Buckle up—it’s a long ride, and we’ll be travelling all night…

Running on Fumes is a taut tale, a classic road trip that kicks off with just a man and his car (and a bad-tempered cat for company). The first half of the novel is fairly claustrophobic, with the reader sharing in the stifling loneliness. What we see is a man worn down by his job, alone with the heat and dust of the road—and his memories:

The sun was over the road now, highlighting the crack across the windshield.  Without looking in the rear-view, I examined the crack until a voice interrupted and asked what I was thinking.  Shaking my head, I aimed the car at the white line.  Nothing, nothing.

I had left a lot behind, but my past followed me anyway.  A beast with a frightful head, horns, a gaping maw.

Within the confines of his trusty steed, the most serious issues, apart from his concern for his father, are his raging thirst and a need for sleep.

In the outside world, though, it is a very different story. Over in the east, the power has been out for longer, and the further he drives, the more rumours he hears of what is going on:

We’re not sure. We’re having problems with our radios. We haven’t had power for more than a week. The police force here is overwhelmed. And we’ve heard that they’ve had trouble keeping crowds under control in the cities. Total confusion. Some people are taking advantage of the situation and looting. Others take the law into their own hands.

Gradually, more signs of danger appear, and when he meets this police road block half-way through the novel, it acts as a warning that he’s passing the point of no return. More than the story of one man, Running on Fumes is an examination of what happens when society breaks down, highlighting the best and worst of human nature in the face of adversity. One small town the driver and his passengers stop at has decided to go it alone, keeping morale high by instituting a system of permits and rations. Elsewhere, chaos descends, and most people the driver encounters talk of the looting and violence occurring in the big cities. In truth, we never know exactly what is going on (or where either—there is a distinct lack of names of people or places), but it doesn’t really matter as our place is with the driver, getting closer and closer to his destination.

Guay-Poliquin’s work is one that pulls you along, the short sections and terse language reflecting both the simplicity and the tension of the journey, and Jacob Homel does an excellent job of bringing this across into English (in his afterword, the translator discusses the choices he made in altering the tenses used in order to create the same effect in the translation as was provided by the original). The novel can be dark at times as the writer hints at what lies ahead, and as the kilometres mount, the mood intensifies. This is particularly true once the two hitchers enter the scene. The driver isn’t certain that he can trust them, but given the nature of his journey, he doesn’t really have a choice.

The cover of the translation, depicting the Minotaur of Greek legend, is apt since the writer frequently draws on the legend as a source for his story. Several short sections describe Theseus in the labyrinth, focusing on his confusion, and one of the first pieces connects the classic tale with Guay-Poliquin’s modern equivalent:

He who believes he is moving in a straight line is actually drawing great concentric circles.  He who turns around cannot trace his steps.

There are more than a few hints that the driver is stuck in his own mental maze, and memories of pivotal events in his life (such as his girlfriend’s departure nine months earlier and his mother’s death in a car crash) are perhaps the key to what happens in the novel. There is a sense that everything that happens on his trek across the continent is less to do with a desire to reach his father than an attempt to come to terms with his past.

Running on Fumes is an entertaining novel, with more questions than answers (don’t bother to look for details of the power crisis—they’re not forthcoming). Even if I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending, it is an intriguing story of the way our ghosts can always catch us up, no matter how fast we drive in the opposite direction. And, of course, if the world really does continue on its frightening Trumpian path, the novel might also be a useful guide as to how to act in the days to come…

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Guest review by Tony Malone of Tony’s Reading List