This novel is Chris Benjamin’s debut work and is brought to readers via Roseway Publishing, a small Nova Scotia-based publisher that “…aims to publish literary work that is rooted in and relevant to struggles for social justice.” Roseway was acquired by Fernwood Publishing, also based in Nova Scotia, in 2006. Fernwood operates under a unique principle:“…to provide authentic opportunities to first time authors and to groups who are often silent or silenced in today’s media. We are not afraid to take risks in this regard and, because of our confidence in the quality of the work we choose to publish, many of our first time authors remain with us throughout their publishing career.” Armed with these two pieces of information, I can understand why the publisher was drawn to Benjamin’s meaningful new novel.
From the cover description:
Demoralized by his job and dissatisfied with his life, Mark punches the clock with increasing indifference. He wanted to help people; he’d always believed that as social worker he would be able to make a difference in people’s lives. But after six years of bureaucracy and pushing paper Mark has lost hope.
All that changes when he meets Bumi, an Indonesian restaurant worker. Moved from his small fishing village and sent to a residential school under the authoritarian Suharto regime, Bumi’s radical genius and obsessive-compulsive disorder raise suspicion among his paranoid neighbours. When several local children die mysteriously the neighbours fear reaches a fevered pitch and Bumi is forced to flee to Canada.
Brought together by a chance encounter on the bus, Mark and Bumi develop a friendship that forces them to confront their pasts. Moving gracefully between Canada and Indonesia and through the two men’s histories, Drive-by Saviours is the story of desire and connection among lonely people adrift in a crowded world.
Chris Benjamin has, to this point, led a varied and interesting life and it feels as though he has drawn from all of these aspects in creating a memorable work. While not a social worker, Benjamin did have the opportunity, during his time living in Toronto, to work with immigrants new to the country. He was drawn to people who had come to Canada, willing to start life over again. In a recent interview with Arts East magazine, Benjamin described it like this:
“The stories I heard from new Canadians blew me away. These were people who – by choice or not – picked up their entire lives, everything they’d ever known, and relocated on another planet – a cold planet. I’d lived abroad a fair bit but seeing these folks out of their cultural context, trying to rebuild their lives from scratch, I wanted to write about that.”
I read Drive-By Saviours quickly, beginning it this past Sunday and finishing last evening. It was a book I had trouble stepping away from, or even finding moments within where I felt comfortable taking a break. I was so keen to follow the path Benjamin was taking me down. We are introduced to Bumi first, in chapter one, on the day of his birth on Rilaka, an Indonesian island. We meet Mark, in Toronto, at the start of the second chapter. Mark looks back on his younger years, and career trajectory then tells us he was “content by 25”. Going forward, the novel alternates chapters, with each character having their own arc and unique timbre. Each young man is on a different course – Bumi’s complicated by the regime of Suharto and undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and Mark’s fraught with emotional personal entanglements that lead to choices of self-sabotage.
We know these two characters will, eventually, cross paths and that the resulting relationship will change both of their lives. With each of these young men, and with the novel as a whole, I have been left with the feeling Benjamin has written a novel about the importance of personal connection with others. The author offers us contrasting views of relationships, with all of the complexities these entail. Bumi, though less fortunate because of political impositions on personal freedoms, has a wife, daughter and son he loves, then loses. Marc, with all of the advantages the Western world has to offer, has a common-law relationship with his girlfriend that is on the decline and barely any relationship with his own family.
Benjamin underscores his study in humanity with a theme of social justice (or injustices) while informing readers about OCD. Ideas this big could have proved labyrinthine, but Benjamin is a deft guide and as a reader I never felt as though he was preaching or cloaking his personal feelings under the guise of fiction. The characters of Mark and Bumi are so well developed that you can’t help but feel empathy for them. For Bumi, in particular, I marveled at his strength and determination. I only have two minor criticisms of Drive-By Saviours. First, perhaps the background story about Mark’s family – particularly the relationship with his sister Michelle – could have been addressed more thoroughly earlier on. For me, the depth of their troubled relationship was not strongly evident until Mark tried to reengage with Michelle. Second, Bumi’s ocean travel seemed a bit tidy. These are so minor though, and I mention them only because I ended up curious about several things within the story, once I had finished the novel.
Overall, Drive-By Saviours is a very strong debut and Benjamin has some serious writerly chops. I look forward to his next novel, which he hopes to release in 2012.