Randall "Cobb" Seymour has a mission from Crow the Creator. Newly released from prison, this "monster" of a man – half Mohawk, half Ojibway – enters the world of the white man like the proverbial bull in the china shop. He quickly builds an empire out of illegal cigarette sales, running weed, prescription drugs and other scams for kicks. He has a chip on his shoulder that dates back generations.
William Tobe, a visionary economics student from the University of Ottawa, drops off the radar following graduation and resurfaces in Toronto as Cobb’s unlikely partner in crime. They are prophets, both of them, in their own way. People who can "guide and see." Together they subvert the system like 17th century coureurs de bois – the earliest venture capitalists to visit North America – turning their newly created fortune into vast tracks of Costa Rican rainforest, with the ultimate goal of selling carbon bonds in some distant dream economy.
The testosterone is thick here, so is the symbolism. Cobb realizes early in the novel that the white man has "liberated himself from the pigmentation of his skin, from his sex, his hair, his age, and his place. The white man was an idea, like money, a commodity." Cobb is his anti-thesis, "a man with the powerful and purposeful stride of a mountain cat." A man of action who is given over almost entirely to eating, drinking, and fornicating. A man in touch with his animal self. And Will, for his part, is quick to ascertain that in the modern world "there is nothing left to believe in." So the two of them set about creating their own system of beliefs based on barter and exchange, for, as they discover, "need has a power of its own."
Set in a seedy stretch of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, Coureurs de Bois is a novel where the insane speak oracular truths and a female Christ figure – complete with virgin birth – attempts to kill herself, shocked by the "absolute horror of the human condition." The characters here are full-blown and fascinating. The pacing is immaculate. The humour black, intelligent, and just as likely to reinforce a stereotype as deflect one.
It’s a shame that it doesn’t have a truckload of promotional money to propel it into the Canadian consciousness. Exceptional.