Late Nights with Hay

by katiclops




here is something about the night air in Ontario in the summer. I am almost entirely sure it’s a provincial thing, and it seems to be strongest in the cities, a muggy crispness of night.  The collective sigh of relief a million people almost audible as insufferable heat yields to darkness. Maybe it’s something about the humidity, the way it muffles sound, thickening the air so that aside from the nimble cicadas very little can cut through it’s thick curtains. Or maybe it’s the darkness, streets filled with light during long winters are suddenly engulfed in thick leafy blackness. It could be the acres of fields, briefly filled with growing green things, spewing the air with byproducts of photosynthesis.  It could also be the electricity, pulsing through everything, every instant a breath away from a clap of thunder and a torrential down pouring of rain.

I arrived in Ottawa in darkness, to cigarettes. Returning from out west I always forget that smoking is still cool and normal in other places. A burst of it greeted me, rushing up from the sliding doors and +30C as I rolled out to the bus stop.  It was after 11pm by the time I arrived at my friend’s house, where I was greeted with an icy gin and tonic and a ripe Ontario peach: utterly bliss.  We instantly retreated to the rooftop patio, where stars, cicadas and a slight breeze joined us as we caught up.

The next day after breakfast (and a quick nap which I attributed entirely to jet lag) I trekked off to the bus station. The trek from Ottawa to Montréal is a familiar one.  The bus takes just over two and a half hours, and tends to truck through a myriad of small Francophone and farming towns on it’s way between the big cities. I have driven this route dozens of times, and it always takes just slightly longer than you anticipate.  Maybe it’s driving through the flatness that makes the time pass by more slowly, or it’s so engraved in childhood jaunts between Toronto and Hamilton that I just instinctively assume it should only take 45 minutes.  Regardless, this time I am rested, fed and prepared. Montréal is nearly in sight.

I settle in for the journey, somehow managing to get a double seat.  The crippling heat wave this particular summer has bleached the countryside blond.  Emancipated trees curl up into the sky, shrieking under the sun. At a glance sub-Saharan Sahel.  The sun glints off the metal barns dotting the horizon, giving the impression of driving through an air field, with giant hangers and jets, glistening on rural runways. After a few hamlets of reflection, I give in and crack into my first travel book.

Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air had tipped the crucial number of recommendations and references that when it materialized on my bookshelf my interest was piqued–even sufficiently enough that I trucked it across the country as one of the elite few travelling books. It has been reputed to spur northern canoe trips, careers in radio and people revel in it’s imagery…I tore through the first 230 pages in one go on the bus (before I was thrown back into nauseous contemplation out the window…years without a car has reverted me back to motion sickness!). Yet I am still struggling with the resolution. I really, really, wanted to love this book. I love radio (I’ve listened to months worth of CBC and NPR), I love canoeing, I love small towns but…I got stuck.  Like, really stuck. 100 pages to go and it was this great big wall of pause: DO YOU REALIZE THIS IS CANADIANA? ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO BE READING THIS?

Willows beach, July 2012

I finished the book last night.

In broad strokes it redeemed itself, I’m so happy I finished it.  Broadly, I think this would make a fantastic, hilarious and beautiful movie. If the director really wanted to, they could even feature cut aways of people journalling or late night broadcasts to capture some of the lyrical turns of phrase. My main struggles with the book surrounded the following (some spoilers-beware!):

1. Pacing

Maybe a product of my own demise, I found the pacing of this book erratic. When I was first recommended the book, I was told it was a history of Canadian radio in the North. The next couple people who mentioned it explained that it was a story about a canoe trip.  By 256 pages in, they still haven’t left on the canoe trip. I’m a Virgo, I like plans, I like symmetry, and I spent the first 256 pages of the novel wondering when they were going to leave on this trip.  This is further frustrating, because very few of the characters seem like the types of people who would ever embark on something of this caliber.

After finishing the book though, I think it might have been intentional.  Towards the end of the book, Hay writes that in life we are often overcome by the length and suddenness of it. This book was paced this way.  Hundreds of pages of anticipation, and then all the action, all at once.

The other thing that became apparent was perhaps a cultural difference; the idea that outdoorsy people are outdoorsy people all the time. In the south (i.e., “outside” ), outdoorsy people tend to be just that, escaping from the city all the time, “living off the land”, etc. But in the process of the canoe trip, you quickly see that in the North you can’t be an outdoorsy person all the time.  Outside is all but insurmountable and living in Yellowknife is essentially like perpetual camping.

2. Characters 

Issue two.  The people.  Voicing in Late Nights hovers between first and third person.  Hay launches into the book by introducing a slew of people, none of the characters are particularly likeable, and all of them cross-paths so frequently that it quickly becomes difficult to keep them straight.  It kind of felt like watching a Canadian radio program reality TV show: deep down, everyone is awful,  the isolation drives everyone a little crazy, and by the end of the second episode you find yourself struggling to empathize with anyone at all.  Because I couldn’t keep the characters straight, I struggled connecting to any of them until the final chapters.

The Painter, William Kurelek

By the end of the book, I began to realize that there is only one character: the North. The way Hay’s narration of the characters against the background of the North is like the way Kurelek paints sole subjects against the empty prairies. Rather than having the subject become the focal point of the painting, instead it magnifies the importance and beauty of the background. Late Nights is about the North, about the space, about the hopeless unknowingness of it all. The lack of depth in the characters is integral to what Hay is trying to convey. She writes in the typical haunting solitary voice of Canadian fiction writers, her words stand out on the page like a lone tree on a horizon.

Once a lake is ten miles long it might as well be an ocean.

3. Sub-plots (or lack thereof)

The beginning of this book reads akin to field notes or a journal from an anthropological study. A collection of details that may or may not later be important. Each character in some way represents a different issue. For example, one works extensively on land claims issues.  Initially I was frustrated by the flitting way the issues were brought up and the slowness in which they were returned to (if they were returned to at all).  Later however, I wondered if this was in any way reflective of the way Northern issues are dealt with in reality.  Largely it is the policy developed in the South, the huge shows in galleries that make way for change. I didn’t want to believe this subplot. I still want to believe change comes from within, that there was more to it.  Ultimately I was still just left with a biography of the present day landscape, rather than any position on the myriad of issues or stories that she explained.

4. Imagery

The last element of this book

the slender gift of a sentence

It’s beautiful lyricism. As with Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Late Nights on Air almost reads like an old epic, an Odyssey or an Iliad. These incredibly beautiful poetic moments, with delicate detail, loosely knit together with other intimate moments from fuzzy characters against a grander plot about place.  This is how I read the book, like seeing a magic eye. I lost the characters, focused on the details, and out of the ether, this intense hidden story of the North emerged.

I should mention I am totally incapable of seeing magic eyes, so my apologies if this is in any way profane!


This book has received critical acclaim. Even while I was writing this,  a woman walked by and slapped the cover: “This is the book I was just telling you about!” she turned to her friends, shaking her head, ” It’s absolutely fantastic!

I liked this book, but I feel like I missed something.

If any of you have made it this far, you probably have also read the book-I’d love to hear any feedback you have on why you liked it!