- Published by Roseway
- Paperback ISBN: 9781552663691
- Paperback Price: $19.95 CAD
- Publication Date: Sep 2010
- Rights: World
- Pages: 352
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Chris Benjamin masterfully, magically weaves together the seemingly disconnected worlds of Mark, a failed social-worker-turned-unhappy-grant-writer coming to the end of an even unhappier relationship, and Bumi, an Indonesian illegal immigrant on the run from his past and the ocd that dogs his present. Their chance encounter on a Toronto subway launches them on a complicated friendship that allows both men to finally confront the demons in their pasts and to find the hope in their futures.
— Stephen Kimber, author of Reparations
Chris Benjamin’s debut novel is part contemporary fiction, part social commentary and part kick-in-the-ass storytelling. Although refreshingly unique in its portrayal of Indonesia’s cultural landscape, with its universal themes of greed, betrayal, family and redemption, Drive-by Saviours transcends both time and place. Through weaving Bumi’s tenacity with Mark’s ennui, Benjamin skillfully elucidates how globalization entangles us all in an artificially exploitive web and how escape can only be found through creating genuine bonds, those that deeply connect us one to another.
— Carla Gunn, author of Amphibian
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 subway, 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.
About the Author
Chris Benjamin stumbled from Nova Scotia’s suburban badlands at the bewildered age of 21 years, clutching a hard-earned Marketing Communications degree from Dalhousie University. He has since been a market analyst in Waterloo, a forestry officer in St. Lucia, a farm worker in British Columbia, an environmental consultant in Indonesia, a researcher in Indonesia—-he published a summary of his work there with the University of Waterloo Press—-a hitchhiker across North America, an advocate for new Canadians in Toronto, a reclusive novelist in Finland, a reluctant train tourist in Russia, Mongolia, China and Japan, a journalist in Ghana, and an environmental lobbyist in Nova Scotia.
Sometime along the way he picked up a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from York University and a small grant from the Toronto Arts Council to write this novel, which won the Percy Prize for best novel in the Atlantic Writing Competition. Chris has been a freelance writer throughout and has published hundreds of news stories, features, essays, and editorials in various anthologies, newspapers, magazines, and online publications. He is now the Sustainable City Columnist for The Coast weekly newspaper in Halifax. Chris has written fiction and features for The Toronto Star, VoicePrint Canada, This Magazine, Now Magazine, Descant, Nashwaak Review, Pottersfield Press, Rattling Books, the University of Waterloo Press, Z Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, The Chronicle Herald, Progress Magazine, The Maritime Policy Review, and many others. He lives with his wife and little boy in a house owned by two cats in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
(photo: Molly Crealock)
One of the most famous opening lines of US postmedern fiction is “–Money...? in a voice that rustled.” Chris Benjamin, born the year J R (1975) came out, begins Drive-by Saviours with the birth of one of his two main male characters, Bumi, in Rilaka, a seemingly ficional island in Indonesia. “From the beginning Bumi’s eyes pierced harder than any other’s, glowering while his father forced him to try football, glowing brightly at the chance to help the man count market money from mainland fish sales. By age four he’d humbled his father by becoming a faster and more accurate bookkeeper.” Like JR Vansant, Bumi is an apparent innocent and he doesn’t find the “sandy paradise” of his island nearly as interesting as numbers, languages, and engineering. He invents a fishing net so that his father, Yusupu, can spend less time at sea and more time with him. “The lighter workload and greater cash flow that came [the fishermen’s] way...resulted not in more play time with his father, but less,” and with time to kill, the men drink more. Things become difficult for Bumi, his mother, Win, and his mentally challenged sister, Alfi, as their father changes, just as life on Rilaka does. The lesson, unlearned by Bumi, is that innovation, if not accompanied by sufficient thought about its ramifications, can lead to troubling social and domestic problems.
Further changes come in the young boy’s life when Indonesia’s dictator-president, Suharto, sees “ a chance to get some easy money from the World Bank,” as one mentor tells Bumi, by enacting a policy to better educate the population. Benjamin prioritizes the effects: “Rilaka was hard hit by this development and the new needs it created. Twenty percent of the labour force was to be siphoned away like overpriced gas, the twenty percent that ate the least. And with Bumi’s departure they would lose their top engineer, bookkeeper and translator. But all these losses were nothing compared to the departure of fifteen children aged six to eleven years.” Maybe the villagers feel that way, but Benjamin underlines the economic impact. From the first pages, he establishes a narrative in which people are objects that can be moved around, disposed of, and treated as commodities. Under the auspices of enlightenment, education, like commerce, is an insturment of oppression.
A sizable part of the novel has chapters that alternate between showing Bumi as he grows up, gets married, becomes a father, and gets into serious trouble, and the adult life of Mark, a social worker in Toronto, Ontario, who is married to a model, estranged from his family, and afraid of much that life has to offer. Where Bumi is the spark, the person who creates opportunities through his precocious intelligence, Mark is the grump who states, “I was content when I was twenty-five years old.” He can only fall from here. He has little connection with the clients he sees: “They gave me the Coles Notes version of all their problems and I made suggestions, like a drive-by saviour.” His one talent is writing grant proposals that put a sheen of respectability on this eleemosynary activity. Though separated by thousands of miles, he and Bumi are connected by an ability and interest in finance that results in benefits primarily for others.
It doesn’t spoil anything to say that Bumi winds up in Toronto and both characters meet. Well before this,the reader will have recognized from Bumi’s rituals, constant washing, and other indicators that he has OCD, though in Indonesia it appears he’s practicing black magic. Mark manages, in one of his few succesful interventions, to get him to a doctor so he can learn that he’s not alone in his illness, and that there are medicaitons and ways to control his thinking and behaviour. Mark also realizes that his sister Michelle, who he hasn’t talked to for some time, must have suffered from the same condition since they were children. He reaches out to her, and their relationship is one that Bumi and his sister can’t have. We’re given a sustained look at how Bumi operates under his condition, but, wisely, not so much what Michelle goes through. This neat parallelism could threaten to turn the novel into the equivalent of those malady-of-the-moment books. After seeing an Oprah Winfrey show about OCD, she recognizes she’s not the only one suffering from it:
”Standing on the roadside before a milelong stretch of impatient authomobiles with her stop sign held loosely in hand, Michelle wondered about all those undiagnosed geniuses in prisons, on streets or trapped in lonely nightmares throughout the world. She wondered if they had their own version of Oprah to diagnose them. She doubted it. She wondered how the world would look if they did.”
This almost bland moment is immediately overturned when the “loosely held stop sign flip[s] around in her hand,” allowing traffic to flow both ways at a road construction site. In the bureaurcratic parlance Benjamin occasionally mimics, she’s “laid off due to insufficient funds.” OCD is taken seriously but he keeps his distance, keeping away from sensationalism or mawkishness.
Outside of Mark’s interpretation of her, Michelle is not given much depth beyond her OCD and her lesbianism, while Mark, adept at being selfish, rarely engages one’s sympathies. Greater, or more natural, energy is put into Bumi and the picture of Indonesia, based on Benjamin’s worldwide travels and an interest in social justice. Here, his references to perhaps indonesia’s best-known and banned writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), are nicely done, and he’s careful to let his anger come out in his themes. Mark’s girlfriend, Sarah, and Michelle are somewhat underdeveloped, and the policeman, Robadise Paradise is a stock figure, as are others. But that strikes me as deliberate. Instead of placing characters at the forefront, Benjamin has chosen to write a roman à thème
(though more subtle than that often implies) to get us to think about immigration (legal and illegal), authoritarian rules, monetary and social policies, from a political standpoint. This is meant to clash with the omnipresent theme of commerce, as when we’re reminded here and there that “cold hard cash” is what’s needed to free Bumi from his obligations, and for other purposes.
Some people may prefer books with less social content. Paul West addressed this in the first volume of Sheer Fiction (1987) when he wrote about the “anti-style rabble” who, among other targets, dislike writing that ventures, heaven forbid, into areas not ‘traditional’ to the novel, such as science, instead of the ups and downs of little people with mortgaes and fireplaces that leak smoke.” Chris Benjamin has chosen legitimate and important subjects for his first novel, whose ending allows limited hope for positive change. Bumi, in Rilaka, composes a letter at the end of every month. “He sits down in the moonlight and, inspired by the constant rhythim of the waves,” Mark says, “writes me his latest symphony.” For Bumi, the commerce has been replaced by a form of peace with the world; as for Mark, who now works for Mexico, it remains an open question how he’s doing.–Jeff Bursey, American Book Review, July-August 2011, Volume 32, Number 5
One of my favourite things about living in Halifax, N.S. is that the writing community is a manageable size and in my experience, overwhelmingly supportive. I do my bit by occasionally reading a book by a local author and that was my main motivation behind purchasing Drive-by Saviours by fellow Haligonian Chris Benjamin. I’d also been following Chris on Twitter and while we’ve never met, we’ve had brief on-line conversations that led me to expect he would be a thoughtful and articulate writer. He is, and so much more.
Drive-by Saviours is the type of debut novel I’d like to write–ambitious, impactful and sweeping. It boldly creates characters that are flawed yet sympathetic, and a plot that is unpredictable, tragic and hopeful. Rarely does a book feature strong characters and plot, one usually coming at the expense of the other, but this book has them both in equal doses.
One of the two main characters, Bumi, grows up in Rilaka, a small Indonesian fishing island. As part of Suharto’s educational reforms, Bumi is forced from his home into a city school where he is expected to forget his peasant upbringing and accept a highly censored curriculum without question. Bumi is incredibly bright and rebellious, traits that prohibit his immersion into this new culture and continually land him in trouble.
The other main character, Mark, is a young social worker living in Toronto during the 2003 blackout that left the city without power for several days during an August heat wave. The blackout profoundly affects how Mark sees and relates to his fellow citizens. As I, too, lived in Toronto at that time, I found the descriptions of how people interacted during the blackout totally accurate and insightful. Chris’s writing about it and his observations about multicultural Toronto in general are so astute I felt (and rather wished) I’d written them myself.
I struggled initially with Bumi’s storyline and was confused by some of the Indonesian names and political events of the time. In the early chapters I yearned to stay with Mark’s story. It focused on the paralyzing stasis of his relationship with his girlfriend, Sarah, and his work. The further I got into the book, however, the more I yearned to read about Bumi. His struggles were with demons real and imagined, while Mark’s were more with a lurking discontentment that seemed self-indulgent when contrasted with Bumi’s problems. It took a long time for these two characters to meet but as expected, they had profound influence upon one another once they did and for me, that’s when the book became exciting.
While the second half felt more rushed than the first, overall the writing is well paced in that it moved the story forward but paused when necessary to paint a picture or evoke a feeling. The tale is sad but it’s a beautiful melancholy. The author ambitiously weaved many important social issues into the story and managed to present them in sufficiently informed and respectful ways.
Drive-by Saviours proved to me yet again that when you buy local and read local, you discover some of the best writers live close to your home.
—Alison DeLory, alisondelory.com, Apr. 27, 2011
Readers in Halifax will be familiar with Chris Benjamin from his environmental column in The Coast newspaper, but those weekly dispatches do not hint at the giant storytelling talent unleashed in his first novel, Drive-by Saviours(Roseway Publishing).
- Were you drawn more to Mark or Bumi? Why?
- Which of the two men did you most identify with? Why? Was the one you identified with the same as the one you were drawn to? Does that tell you anything about yourself as a reader? As a person?
- Mark suffers from paralysis by analysis – he wants to help but he has so many questions and he is so overwhelmed by uncertainty that he usually fails to act at all. Did this irritate you? What would you say to Mark if he asked for your advice?
- Between the two men, Bumi faced greater challenges in life, yet Mark was the more disillusioned of the two? Why do you think that is? Did Mark hold your interest as a character despite his negativity and boredom with his own life?
- The novel was half set in Indonesia and half in Canada. Which scenes were most compelling for you and why? Was Bumi’s life in Canada as interesting as it was in Indonesia? Were his struggles with life as an illegal immigrant and his homesickness and culture shock compelling?
- The novel alternates between a chronological third-person account of Bumi’s life and a first-person non-chronological narration by Mark. Why do you think the author chose this unusual structure? What was he trying to convey? Did he succeed?
- The novel dealt with many themes: mental illness, social isolation, international development, Canadian multiculturalism, culture shock, immigration, cultural preservation, the question of what it is to help, the psychological impacts of authoritarianism, and indigenous healthcare. How do you feel about political literature? Did these issues serve the plot? Or did the plot seem like a device used to discuss political issues? Were politics too abundant in this work? Or a necessary component of a complex story?
If there is one genre of art almost guaranteed to raise hackles (mine, anyway), it’s that of ‘liberal guilt.’
You know the genre. There’s a person who feels guilty, and takes it upon him or herself to somehow ‘better’ the life of someone less fortunate. When done wrong (and it has been done so, so wrong), it usually takes the form of overly-sentimentalized Hollywood hokum (The Blind Side, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, etc). The kind of movie, book, or television show that ends with the audience so damned pleased with themselves, feeling themselves better for having shed a tear for those plucky immigrants/inner-city students/sick kids. And please don’t think ill of me, I promise this is not a conservative screed disguised as a book review; I’m as lefty as all get out, but I call shenanigans on such saccharine drivel.
The genre does have highlights, works that somehow transcend the genre with though, imagination, and a lack of bathos. Friday Night Lights, for example, presents realistic portrayals of all involved without over-varnishing of the travails of everyday life (and Ihate football, so for me to watch it, it must be freakin’ good). Dead Man Walking was a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways, but gripped me from beginning to end. Half Nelson found a good balance.
My point? It’s a fine line between writing a theme and bashing people over the head with it. And I should know; I mean, have you even read Shelf Monkey? Sledgehammer, baby.
Drive-by Saviours, by newbie author Chris Benjamin, skirts this line time and again. But through skill and subtlety of character, Benjamin for the most part pulls it off.
Drive-by tells in alternating chapters the stories of two men; Bumi, an Indonesian immigrant, and Mark, a Toronto social worker. Bumi’s life has been one of hardship; brought up in the island of Rilaka, he is removed from his family to enter a newly-established residential school. Bumi is eager to learn, intelligent to a fault, but he suffers from variety of obsessive compulsive tics that make it difficult for him to concentrate, and earn him a reputation as a fairly strange man:
his incessant purification rituals that crossed the line toward self-abuse; his long morning routine of dressing, undressing, and redressing multiple times until he got it just right . . . His use of elbows and feet instead of hands, which were often protected in plastic bags; his strange and complex series of patterned twitches . . . his harassment of strangers as they passed on foot, writing down their names and purposes or fretting inconsolably if they refused to provide the information.
Through a series of mistakes and assumptions, Bumi is forced to flee for his life, leaving his family and taking up a life as an illegal immigrant in Canada.
Mark, on the other hand, is a fairly well-off Canadian with little in common with Bumi save a less than perfect childhood. His job as a social worker at a community health centre is undemanding, Mark writing up proposals and plans, seeing people less and less; his clients would “give me the Coles Notes version of all their problems and I made suggestions, like a drive-by saviour.”
It doesn’t take a genius to see that these two men will cross paths, and it’s a tribute to Benjamin’s talent as a writer that the trek to that point is almost sheer pleasure. Perhaps by necessity, Bumi’s tale is far more interesting, and Benjamin pulls off the neat trick of taking a potentially dark tale and never succumbing to despair. Bumi’s life is harsh, but the bleakness never overwhelms either Bumi or the reader. Mark’s life, likely more familiar to the average North American reader, is more comfortable than Bumi’s, but his life too is full of pitfalls and disappointments. Benjamin is working with a universal theme here, the idea that happiness comes from within, and it is how we strive against obstacles that defines us. It’s a far more palatable motif than the aforementioned theme of ‘let’s help those who cannot help themselves and feel better about ourselves as a result.’
And when the two finally meet, not as social worker and client but as two figures on public transport, Benjamin takes great pains to avoid any clear-cut resolutions. Mark understands Bumi’s dilemma, and recognizes his OCD, but such a revelation does not lead to triumphant resolution. Bumi appreciates Mark’s efforts, but knows that his life in Canada is not the life he wishes.
At times, Drive-by Saviours veers perilously close to polemic, telling rather than showing, especially with regard to Mark’s efforts to help Bumi, but Benjamin’s novel only uses their relationship as an anchor to tell the stories of two sad and lonely men, each trying to find their place in the world. While it’s a common theme, it’s only as strong as the storyteller, and Benjamin proves himself a natural.
—Jan 8, 2011