Review: Caught, by Lisa Moore

caught>>Published: May 2013

>>Finally got around to it: October 2013

He hadn’t looked down on her, though she was trying with all her might to smash him to bits. She was looking for the button that would blow him sky high, but she couldn’t get at it.

He once told her he would do it again if he got the chance.

I’m shocked, she’d said.

I see the whole picture, he said. But what he meant was they had not broken him. They could forget about breaking him. He didn’t judge people. That was what he had that they didn’t have.

There’s something I’d like to ask, she said. What makes you believe you wouldn’t get caught again?

Her earnestness nearly broke him. She was so sincere it almost made him doubt. He would have told her he believed and that was all there was to it.

Believing is believing is believing is believing.

There’s no reason to it. It just is, he would have told her that. But they had run out of time.

***

June 14, 1978: a young man from Newfoundland named David Slaney escapes from prison in Nova Scotia. Slaney’s young, about to turn twenty-five, and has just served four years and two days of a prison term as a direct result of the biggest pot bust in Canadian history—two tons and over a million dollars in Colombian weed. He and his accomplice Brian Hearn were busted coming into port. While Slaney went to prison, Hearn jumped bail, changed his name, and began a new life on the west coast.

With the help of a plan concocted by Hearn, Slaney’s sister, and a few assorted ne’er-do-wells, Slaney is making his way across the country, back to Hearn, then back to Colombia for another shot at glory. Because easy money is easy if you don’t cock it up. Along the way he’ll come into contact with more than a couple lost souls willing to give him a lift or show him some sympathy—because criminal or no, Slaney’s got a good heart, that much is clear—and take a short detour to visit his ex, Jennifer, whose life has gone on without him. Meanwhile, dogging Slaney every step of the way is Patterson, a staff sergeant with the Toronto Drug Section who’s hoping Slaney will lead them to Hearn.

Split into five parts, Lisa Moore’s Caught is a bit of an odd beast. It’s at once harrowing and mundane, trapped halfway between popcorn thriller and “literary” novel without ever confidently setting foot in either pool. The setup is great: we’ve got a prison break, investors in Montreal burned by the bust-gone-wrong from four years earlier, and the opportunity to make amends—to take, by force, the life Slaney feels he is owed. However, it’s in the execution of these ideas that Caught is found lacking, suffering a crisis of identity.

The novel works best in short bursts—vignettes—like with Slaney and the bride-to-be, or when he ducks down to Ottawa to visit Jennifer and the new life she’s won for herself. With Jennifer, we’re given a brief but effective glimpse into their shorthand connection developed in childhood. In fact, the quick detour Moore takes into Slaney and Jennifer’s time together as kids, when she busts him for cheating during a softball game, provides us with all we need to understand how and why they worked so well together in the past. It is the most in-depth and effective character work in the entire novel.

Which brings us to the novel’s downfall: that there really isn’t much of interest to the lives of Moore’s characters. We’re given some details here and there as to who they are and why and how they’re involved—like how Hearn’s actions impacted his father, for example—but for the most part the characters are detailed in unemotional strokes designed to differentiate them from one another by their backgrounds and not by how they are portrayed or what they say. The most troublesome for me was actually Patterson, who, according to his character’s past, has a lot to gain if he succeeds in bringing Slaney and the others to justice, yet seems entirely uninterested in the hunt. There’s no apparent drive or emotional core to any of these people—just actions and reactions to situations like they’re walking from point to point on a narrative line that’s already been sketched out for them. For however much Slaney and Jennifer’s connection worked, it’s such a small part of the overall book that it feels like an overburdened fulcrum on which too much emotional weight has been hung.

Beyond the lack of character, Moore’s writing simply never popped for me. It’s propulsive in terms of driving the plot, but it’s just… well, it’s not interesting—it gets the job done without ever really painting the scene. As a study in streamlining narrative construction, it has its merits—the initial reveal of Patterson’s duplicitous role would not have been so effective were it not for the matter-of-fact presentation of the scene—but as a result the novel lacked sensory and emotional appeal. Yes, like my last review, How to Get Along with Women, the decision to remove quotation marks for dialogue plays personally into this reaction; while it was easier to discern what was and what wasn’t dialogue here than in de Mariaffi’s title, I still felt as if I was being dictated to in a stark, monotone voice. This stylistic decision pushed me away from the story instead of drawing me in.

While the novel picks up emotionally in the final part, becoming somewhat stronger as a character piece as it deals with new themes of forgiveness and finding one’s place in the world, it was too little too late to make me feel what I’d hoped to feel for Slaney in the end; the starkness of everything that had come before robbed Caught’s conclusion of any sort of catharsis.

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