1. The Walrus
It started off as a bad joke, like bulgogi tacos or Arnold Schwarzenegger's political career.
In the Summer of 2006 I was living in a hotel in Hinton, Alberta, about half an hour from the Rocky Mountain resort town of Jasper and half a universe away from anything resembling civilization. I was looking for a root beer in a gas station when I got distracted by the porn and started reading other magazines. Flipping through, from the back pages to the front (a strange habit acquired during 7-Eleven Slurpee runs in Manitoba), I caught an article in a Canadian literary journal written by the frontman for Pink Floyd, David Gilmour, called “Tolstoy and I.”
Except it wasn’t actually the guy from Pink Floyd; it was a Canadian writer and former CBC arts correspondent who has the same name as that guy. (I’m sure he loves to be reminded of that.) In any case, it was one of those tricks that fate plays on you, to catch your attention when you’re already fucking high in some shitty nowhere oil town reading articles on War and Peace in some magazine called The Walrus.
David Gilmour — the writer, not the musician — is a novelist, having written a couple of really enjoyable stinkers and also one really good book, A Perfect Night to Go to China, which won the 2005 Governor General’s Award for fiction in Canada. I liked that he wrote about literature and drugs in a way that was frank and articulate, like you were getting heavy between rails on a coffee table. But with War and Peace?
“I have a check mark beside the paragraph where, even in the rollercoaster grip of a white rum hangover, I began to pay acute attention. I had been expecting, as one often finds with nineteenth-century novels, a kind of beautiful boredom. Instead, after only a few pages, I experienced one of those moments when you’ve been half-listening to someone you don’t take seriously and suddenly they say something so sharp, so true that it jars you physically, like the sound of expensive material ripping, and you realize tout d’un coup that you have completely underestimated them. Three days later, I found myself stopping a stranger on the road outside my hotel and asking him, ‘Have you ever read this fucking thing?”
A few weeks later I returned to Grande Prairie, where I lived with my brother and a few friends. We had come up during the big boom years that started in 2005 to make big money. The plan was to pay off all my student loans while I made my graduate school applications for a PhD in Philosophy. Everybody who goes out there has a plan. I was 23 years old.
Plans usually don’t work out. I didn’t have the money I needed to pay for the qualifying “tickets” (safety courses on poisonous gas and first-aid), so for a couple of weeks I worked midnights stocking shelves at a grocery store. Even once I had gotten the qualifications, and despite an ongoing labor shortage, I had trouble getting hired. Then, after my brother came back from a couple weeks on a service rig with a couple grand to blow on the inevitable cocaine rampage, I cut my hippie hair into a mullet and carved out a handlebars mustache from my beard. Before the next round of applications I left off my philosophy degree from my resume. I was hired within a couple of days.
I worked all over Northern Alberta and Northern British Columbia, staying in hotels or work camps for weeks at a time. Hotels were nice; camps were hit and miss. I was at a decent one. It seemed like a bizarre social experiment or some throwback to the make-work programs of Canada’s Depression days: young men from around the country thrown together in desolate surroundings. You could get anything if you knew the right people: weed, blow, hookers. For the most part I stayed away from that shit — not for lack of interest, but for exhaustion. I was working between 100- and 120-hour weeks with a smaller crew that constantly was disassembling and reassembling the pressure-tank unit out of which we worked — hours of sledgehammer work in the mud or the snow. Those were shitty days.
3. The Campground
When I finally got back from Hinton, a copy of The Walrus in hand, my boss dropped me off at a campground outside of town. We had been evicted (there were four of us living in a two-bedroom and and we had a cat — all in contravention of the terms of our lease), and the nearly zero vacancy rate combined with our chronic inability to get our shit together meant that we had to camp out for the summer rather than go homeless.
It worked out okay for a while. Not so much for my brother and our old roommate, who were working in Grande Prairie. By the time I came back from my first six-week stretch in Hinton, the whole campsite stunk like cocaine and death. Empty hard liquor bottles were scattered all over the dirt outside their tent, and someone had driven over my bicycle with their car. I had to walk 45 minutes into town to buy groceries, each way.
Still, it was interesting enough of a place to stay. These modern-day gold-rushers had come up from all parts of the country to ride out the boom. The campgrounds were divided into two parts: the organized RV and trailer section, with families, travellers and Hutterites who came up for the summer to work in the trades, neat rows of wood piles stacked proudly beside their tidy lots; then there were the rest of us, in the tent section. These were the people who didn’t have their shit together enough to buy a trailer, forced to either sleep in tents or their cars. There were a couple of Native kids from the B.C. interior, the Acadian kid who’d pass through for a game of chess and then “Quebec Street,” where the French-Canadians kept to themselves and got drunk and fucked each others girlfriends, then stomped each other's tents. One of the French guys, Frankie, sold enough drugs that he was able to buy a trailer and move out of the tent section. We were all doing so many drugs. Kids were doing rails off of fucking picnic tables. This one night we waited ‘til all the French-Canadians went to the bar, then my brother snuck over and stole a big burning log to start our fire. I had been doing mushrooms and reading Desmond Morris.
“Oh fuck!” I said, as he ran back grinning, a large, glowing branch in his hand. “It’s like we’re the tribe of monkeys that didn’t discover fire; we’re the monkeys that stole it from the tribe that did!”
4. War and Peace
All of my applications to grad school had been rejected. Every single one. Working manual jobs is fine, I guess, especially when you think you’re doing it for a joke. Now the irony was gone, and I was stuck at the bottom of a 10-mile-deep existential cesspool. When you work for weeks at a time, you spend the whole time thinking about what you’ll do when you get back; then once you’re back, after the first colossal tear-up, you have to try to come to grips with what it was that was so important to get back to.
One afternoon I walked the full hour and a half to downtown, stopping in at the Rabbit Hole, a weird bookstore on 100th Avenue where a Liverpudlian actor worked the register. He said he’d gone to acting school with Damon Albarn from Blur before he dropped out and that he’d once seen a UFO. I’m not sure which one he was lying about.
Sure enough, there was a copy of War and Peace. I’d finished The Walrus article, and I figured I’d give it a shot. After all, I would probably get bored of it and leave off.
Tolstoy is interesting as a historical figure, as well as an author. Born into a noble family, he renounced his social position and took up the cause of Russian serfs. At the height of his popularity, he took up peasant life, preaching an austere form of Christianity that he practiced more severely than anyone. In War and Peace, he develops a perspective of historical determinism that is at once genius and immensely amusing, captivating the reader with deliberate and unflinching portrayals of his characters as they encounter historical developments as well as its grand figures, including the Russian Emperor Alexander, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Russian General Kutuzov.
“Halting before the Pavlograd regiment, the Tsar said something in French to the Austrian Emperor and smiled.
Seeing that smile, Rostov unconsciously began to smile himself and felt an even stronger rush of love for his Emperor. He longed to express his love for the Tsar in some way. He knew it was impossible, and he wanted to cry. The Tsar called up the colonel of the regiment and said a few words to him.
‘By God! What would happen to me if the Emperor were to address me!’ thought Rostov; ‘I should die of happiness.’
The Tsar addressed the officers, too.
‘All of you, gentlemen’ (every word sounded to Rostov like heavenly music), ‘I thank you with all my heart.’
How happy Rostov would have been if he could have died on the spot for his Emperor.
‘You have won the flags of St. George and will be worthy of them.’
‘Only to die, to die for him!’ thought Rostov.”
In the days that followed, I read War and Peace in a lawn chair besides the ashes from the fire. During the nights, we’d convince someone to drive into town for beer and get drunk. Soon enough I was called back to work and then it was back to Hinton for the rest of the summer, same hotel room, driving every day on the same dirt roads.
Working on a natural gas stimulation operation, or “fracking,” was an unusual job. For bigger operations, a lot of what we did was called babysitting. That meant that every 30 minutes I would walk from our trailer on the lease site to the wellhead, write down the number on the gauge, then walk back to the trailer. That was it. I would do that for 12 hours. You can get a lot of reading done then or just endlessly re-watch the same movies, slowing down and rewinding scenes to check whether you can see Drew Barrymore’s nipples in the rain scene from 50 First Dates. (You can.)
During the fracking itself, when water and all of those chemicals — basically a mixture of antifreeze, detergent and the preservatives you find in ice cream — are pumped into the ground, our role was to measure the rate of the flow of gas coming from the ground as it was burned into the atmosphere. I was a tester; this meant during operations, I was in a cabin attached to a pressure tank that separated any liquid flow-back from the gas, in a box about 6 feet by 6 feet, listening to the hellish noise of thousands of years of built-up pressure being released from miles underground as the Earth farted lecherously.
Most of the time my job was to do whatever my supervisor — the person with whom I spent my entire 12-hour shift with — told me to. Usually my work instructions were something like this: “Turn this level to 45 degrees when I wave my arm, and if I come back here, get the fuck out of my way.” I guess I did it well enough. Sometimes it was stressful; people could get killed, and some did. We worked nights, watching the Prairie sky turn dark blue, then black, then back again, the leased land lit by stadium lights erected at a few corners to illuminate the well head. Some nights I just stayed in the cabin, waiting for the night to disperse into dawn, a copy of War and Peace on my lap, transporting my mind to the brilliance of a ball in Saint Petersburg:
“That’s the heiress of a million,’ said Madame Personsky. ‘And look, here come her suitors. ... That’s Countess Bezuhov’s brother, Anatole Kuragin,’ she said, pointing to a handsome officer in the Horse Guards, who passed by them looking from the height of his lifted head over the ladies to something beyond them. ‘He is handsome, isn’t he? They say he is to be married to that heiress. And your cousin, Drubetskoy, is very attentive to her too. They say she has millions. Oh, that’s the French ambassador himself,’ she said in answer to the countess’s inquiry as to the identity of Caulaincourt. ‘Just look, he’s like some monarch. But yet they’re nice, the French are very nice. No people more charming in society. Ah, here she is! Yes, still lovelier than any one, our Marya Antonovna! And how simply dressed! Exquisite!”
The next time I came back on leave to the campground, I was ready for a binge. I’d been on enough of them while in Alberta, but this was one of the worst. When I got out of my tent the next day, around 4 in the afternoon, I made my way back into the lawn chair. There was nothing else to do but keep reading War and Peace. When Natasha Rostova is being seduced, I nearly lost my mind:
“Natasha, you fucking slut!” I yelled. “Don’t do it!”
I have always considered myself an exceptionally strong person — or perhaps just incredibly stubborn. But after this summer, the drugs, the lack of a home, the long hours working nights took their toll. On top of it all, I had agreed to meet up with a friend at the end of summer for a vacation. As I passed time on the night-shift, James and I had been chatting online, reminiscing about South-East Asia. With no lack of ambition and about as much thought as you put into choosing what to have for dinner, we had planned to “do South America” over a couple of weeks. By the time I hopped the Greyhound to Edmonton, where I had a flight booked for Lima, Peru, I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown.
When I touched down in Lima, I caught a cab to the hotel. James was already in the hotel room, headphones in, nursing off the jetlag. I woke him up, and we caught up in a restaurant across the street. He was coming off of a year at Oxford. We had met in Vietnam a few years before, and now he was on his summer break. He was 20.
We went to Cusco, then did a trek to Machu Pichu and went on to the islands on Titicaca. After a few days, we began to realize we might have overshot our abilities a little. At the border between Peru and Bolivia, we missed our bus while having an argument about what human greatness constituted. We walked around town for an hour in the noon sun, up and down dusty, dried alleys until we found a taxi willing to drive us to the closest city.
People often say the travel to “find themselves.” That’s bullshit, but also it’s not. What drove me to travel was to see how far I could push myself, to see my own breaking points. I guess I found them.
I had brought my copy of War and Peace, taking glances now and then, by candle in a room where I would spend the coldest night of my life or on the bus as we drove through small towns, chickens scattering, indigenous Bolivians walking short and squat in their odd black hats.
We went in on a 4x4 with some other guys through to the salt flats bordering Chile and around the mountain lagoons. I read through in the back seat, between the Swiss guy and the Spaniard — his name was Gonzalo. I remember him because James kept calling him Gustavo and speaking terrible Spanish to him. We traveled with him for a few days after the trek. I remember this one night we had a bottle of vodka and couldn’t think of any drinking games, so we just played lowest card drawn takes a shot.
In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a few hundred miles from where Che Guevara was captured and executed, James left for Brazil. I hadn’t gotten my Yellow Fever inoculation and couldn’t get a visa, and he had a ticket out of Rio de Janeiro in a week. We shook hands in the town square, and I was left having a conversation with a German phD student who was actually really nice. Orange juice and coffee vendors passed, fatalistically slugging along with their carts in the heat.
8. The Ending
I caught a bus to Mendoza, Argentina, and spent a week getting drunk and eating steak. That’s where I finally finished the book, closing the back cover with a forceful sense of accomplishment on the steps of a hostel. I had finished War and Peace — and I wasn’t even 30 yet. All I had to do now was figure out the rest of my life.
War and Peace forced me to re-evaluate my notions of free will. It brought to life how historical forces shape and are shaped by the the utterly human aspects of its characters, nudged on the smallest and grandest of scales.
“With an unexpected thrill in his voice, Pierre began speaking with sudden rapidity.
‘Non, monseigneur,’ he said, suddenly recalling that Daoust was a duke, ‘you could not know me. I am a militia officer, and I have not left Moscow.’
‘Your name?’ repeated Davoust.
‘What proof is there that you are not lying?’
‘Monseigneur!’ cried Pierre in a voice not of offence but of supplication.
Davoust lifted his eyes and looked intently at Pierre. For several seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. In that glance, apart from all circumstances of warfare and of judgment, human relations arose between these two men. Both of them in that one instant were vaguely aware of an immense number of different things and knew that they were both children of humanity, that they were brothers.”
As I stood up from the chipped concrete step where I finished War and Peace, dusting off my pants, the odd motorbike passing in the nearly deserted street, the feeling was mostly relief with a brief respite of calm and a sense of significance in a period of otherwise meaninglessness.
That is how history actually is, according to Tolstoy — banal, ordinary and replete with meaning, but only if you have the fortitude to grapple with its immensity.