CARNIVAL by Rawi Hage (Anansi) 289 pages. $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNNN
Finally, a piece of fiction that roars. Unlike many of the highly praised novels of 2012 - Ayad Achtar's American Dervish, Alex Ohlin's Inside, for example - Carnival never plays it safe. It's got a story, stream of consciousness that doesn't interfere with it and a powerful voice.
Fly drives a cab in an unnamed city (probably Montreal, Rawi Hage's hometown) where he's likely to meet radicals, drug dealers, strippers and sex addicts, especially during Carnival. His backstory has a similar edge: he was born to circus performers but raised by a bearded transsexual.
Don't take these plot points to mean that Hage is interested only in provocation. His book-loving cabbie, whose apartment is lined with volumes, can meditate on everything from Proust to Genet. He'll also engage in acts of courage - sometimes to save his own neck but most often stepping in on behalf of someone marginalized, especially Otto, his anti-capitalist friend who's becoming so politically obsessed, he's losing his grip.
The stream of consciousness sequences take the form of masturbation fantasies - most of them very funny - in which Fly imagines himself a historical figure saving the world. Every time he lies on the carpet, you know he's headed for another sexual adventure.
Through it all, Hage's language is vivid, full of surreal imagery and laced with metaphor. Fly will often go off on a gorgeous digression, about life in the circus, for example, and as often as he expresses his rage, he'll discover something beautiful to love.
I can't believe those reviewers who suggest Carnival is the work of a self-indulgent writer. Literary risk-takers are rarer every day. I'll take a novelist with Hage's energy any time.
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