Now, Manitoba writer Wayne Tefs transforms a 1992 Jeep Cherokee on Highway 6 between Winnipeg and Thompson into a Pandora’s box of familial sorrow, trapping a mother and two sons in a suffocating blend of repressed anger and camouflaged guilt.
4x4, Tefs’ ninth novel, mixes a hazardous blizzard, strained relations, and close quarters into a dramatic powder-keg, with concealed skeletons the fuse. As Darryl Dokic quips, they are driving “in a snowstorm on the road to godforsaken Thompson. Lucky thing we don’t have to do this sober.”
As befits the title, 4x4 relates itself through four dissimilar narrators. Clint Dokic sells real-estate, sees angles in every conversation, and describes life as, “There’s them on the road to success and them dawdling along through the grass in the ditch.” Brother Darryl is an under-achiever who dreams of Australia, imagining the Outback as an escape from “the nonsense of industry and commerce and the once-a-week nod in the direction of God.”
Mother Meg in the back seat, meanwhile, is a survivor of a marriage reminiscent of Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. As the family challenge rising drifts and poor visibility, Clint’s wife Kaly, the fourth narrator, sits alone at the Burntwood in Thomson, pregnant, scared, and harbouring secrets of her own.
Tefs, winner of the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction for his novel Moon Lake, has a spare, sharp style of writing, admirably capturing the inherent claustrophobia of a lengthy road trip. As the storm’s power and the Dokic’s anxieties begin to swell, the Jeep begins to loosely resemble a Manitoba adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit: “Hell is other people.”
The Dokics themselves are archetypes of a dysfunctional family, but Tefs never permits them to slip into unsympathetic stereotypes. As the present and past engagingly unfold from alternating viewpoints, all facets of the family are studied, engendering empathy that might otherwise be nonexistent.
Yet despite the undeniable strength of Tefs’ style and depth, elements exist that seem out of sync with the whole. For all its realism of tone and character, there exist too many mysteries and buried tragedies to be easily believed.
Each character hides some key that, if revealed, would destroy the others. While each is compelling, presented in muted, realistic hues, when put together they lend an awkward soap-opera-like facade that muffles the quality of the storyline, as if Tefs did not trust his characters to be interesting enough on their own.
Luckily, 4x4 is simply too good to be dismissed for overreaching. If the story at times stretches credulity, it is salvaged by Tefs’ honest humour and compassion. In 4x4, Tefs has fashioned an impressive tale of unflinching humanity and ultimate redemption, a road trip where “the destination only makes up half the journey.”
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press.