‘A Cold Night for Alligators’ by Nick Crowe

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Ryan McBride

There are alligators aplenty in A Cold Night for Alligators, Nick Crowe’s funny, layered, and suspenseful debut novel. They loom large in the dreams and memories of the novel’s narrator, Jasper, and eventually get too close for comfort in more tangible ways. Which is hardly a cheerful prospect, given how gators have a tendency to grab their prey and spiral down with it

… to the bottom of the swamp in a death roll, choking off what life remained as they went. But alligators didn’t eat you fresh. They’d sock you away in a swamp hole and let the sun and the humidity and the bugs do their work. Then, when you’d aged to a delicate ripeness, you were ready for dinner.

As the novel opens, we learn that Jasper, a twenty-something office worker with a hard, cynical hide an alligator might envy, spent many a childhood summer with his family in and around the Florida Everglades. It’s during one of these trips that his older brother Coleman discovers an affinity with the carnivorous reptiles. Jasper is horrified and fascinated both by Coleman, “the boy who swam with alligators,” and by their swamp rat uncle, Rolly Lee, who does nothing to discourage Coleman’s newfound predilection. Not long after the family returns home to southern Ontario, young Coleman appears to lose his grip on reality. He builds a spaceship in the back yard, and abruptly disappears without a trace.

Jasper never loses faith that his brother is alive and well somewhere, but it takes a phone call from a Florida highway trooper who may have seen his brother to hand him the clue he needs to start his search. Sixteen years have now passed, and Jasper’s parents, too, have all but disappeared into unfortunate fates of their own. Not to be outdone, Jasper has recently survived his own close encounter with oblivion in the form of a subway accident and coma. He comes to see the accident as a “get-out-of-jail-free card”—jail being life “in a netherworld that held neither the living nor the dead, only the missing.” But before he can make good on his promise to find his missing brother, he has to get the “hang of being conscious” again.

That’s a lot to pack into a set-up, but Crowe pulls it off with confident storytelling and tight pacing. Turn the page, and Jasper is already heading south along the I-75, the conduit between the “world of hockey and snow blowers” and the “lost, magical world” of southern Florida. He’s searching for more than his missing brother, of course; he’s also looking for a way to shed the thick, leathery skin of his own cynical worldview. “You don’t take anything seriously,” says ex-girlfriend Kim. “You joke about everything when really it all just scares you to death.” Jasper knows that even if he doesn’t find his brother on this journey, he can at least find himself—so long as he’s willing to thrust himself into the jaws of what he fears, and wrestle it to the ground.

Accompanying him on his journey are two friends: Donny, an ex-football player turned born-again Christian, and Duane, who comes straight out of Trailer Park Boys and who provides many of the novel’s more pungent comic moments.

But once the threesome arrives in Florida and Jasper starts to dig for his brother’s whereabouts, the story takes the first of several darker turns. Good old Rolly Lee is waiting for him, and appears to be up to no good. But how far will Rolly Lee will go to protect his secrets, and just how is he tied up in Coleman’s disappearance? Each revelation leads Jasper into greater danger: “I was beginning to feel like Florida was a snare opening wide over me, ready to snap the next time I poked my nose somewhere it shouldn’t be.”

It’s here in the second half, as Jasper’s search leads him to potentially more violent ends, that A Cold Night for Alligators takes on the shape and mood of a pulp novel a la Carl Hiaasen or John D. MacDonald:

Off beyond the looming pines hung with Spanish moss and the thick scrub were the swamps, the place of my nightmares, the boogeyman rendered physical in a black, crawling landscape filled with spiders and snakes, razor-sharp plants and quicksand. And alligators.

One of Crowe’s gifts as a writer is his ability to weave all these seemingly unrelated strands into a compelling and coherent whole. For the most part. There are times when the narrative jolts uncomfortably between gears, but Crowe always knows when to step on the gas to keep the reader turning pages. He also knows just when to slow down. There’s a lot of scenery to take in, locals to meet, and back story gossip to fill the reader in on. Crowe manages all of this with a skill you don’t often find in a third or fourth book, let alone a first.

Other reviewers have taken issue with some of the novel’s more unlikely twists and turns and its theatrical, over-the-top climax. These are minor quibbles. The climax will satisfy the appetites of readers who like their fiction pulpy, while the final scenes bring the novel’s serious and more literary preoccupations to a touching, bittersweet close.  A Cold Night for Alligators does indeed thrash about in brackish waters, but the swamps have surprising depths. It’s a delight to find yourself in the jaws of writing as strong as this.

Knopf Canada | 352 pages | $29.95 | Cloth | ISBN #978-0307399694

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Ryan McBride

Ryan McBride is a Winnipeg writer, editor and photographer.