The Motorcyclist by George Elliott Clarke

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Canada: HarperCollins, Feb 2016


George Elliott Clarke (Photo: Camelia Linta)
(Photo: Camelia Linta)

Librettist, novelist, playwright, poet, screenwriter, and scholar, George Elliott Clarke won the Governor-General's Award for Poetry in 2001 (for Execution Poems). In 2004 he received the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award. In 2005 his work attracted the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellowship Prize. In 2005-6 he published his first novel, George and Rue, in the US, UK, and Canada. He has taught at Duke, Harvard, and McGill universities, and currently teaches at University of Toronto. He has just completed a term as Poet Laureate of Toronto and is now Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate.

The Motorcyclist

by George Elliott Clarke


The Motorcyclist - HarperCollins coverAs children we cannot know, except in the most general, mythical ways, the complex interactions that lead to our births. Inspired by the life of George Elliott Clarke’s father, The Motorcyclist tells the story of Carl Black, a black working-class intellectual and artist, a traveler, reader, actor, speaker, labor organizer, and womanizer.

He was a man who struggled all his life to restore the family’s respectability, which he felt his mother had jeopardized. He longed for the bohemian life, but felt obligated to settle for a bourgeois one, trapped in a railway porter’s prosaic existence.

In the mid-twentieth century, railway work was the most common way for black men in Canada to earn a living. It was difficult if not impossible for them to get better jobs.

Carl's only form of escape was on his motorcycle – a rare possession for a black man both then and now. He longed to become a painter and to continue to explore the continent on two wheels, but he also wanted to do the right thing by his new son. On his motorcycle he had the freedom to transcend his limited options, if only temporarily.

In Carl, George has created a flawed but unique and memorable addition to the gallery of black characters in fiction. For all readers, he offers insight into familial relationships inspired by imagining and understanding our parents as they were before we existed.



The Motorcyclist, with its dense, rich layers of social commentary, historical allusions, and compulsive wordplay, transcends family history…. George Elliott Clarke is an extraordinary wordsmith, and so it is no surprise that his prose is often glorious.” — LITERARY REVIEW OF CANADA

“The prose flows like music and will have you dreaming about the romance of the road and the heat between a man and a woman.” — CANADIAN LIVING Magazine

“Dazzling … This ribald, raw, road-movie of a novel is an object lesson in how to combine the political with the personal.” — QUILL & QUIRE, starred review

“Rich, dense and syntactically serpentine, The Motorcyclist resists consumption in large doses…. Clarke’s linguistic introversions, his endless wordplay, might thwart our usual reading pace, but this also seems part of the point: In a book, and a world, where the sexual is the political, where shades of skin are shades of meaning, and where the motorcycle season is the de facto mating season, it’s not a bad thing to slow down and take your time.” — THE GLOBE AND MAIL

“Black is easily one of the most compelling, dynamic and conflicting characters in recent Canadian fiction…. The result is a work which is both visceral and thoughtful, harrowing and insightful, cruel and tender…. With The Motorcyclist, Clarke has rendered not just an entire world, but also an entire man, flawed and unforgettable.” — TORONTO STAR

“It will surprise anyone who thinks poet laureates are stuffy and politically correct…. Clarke brings back to our consciousness the inequities of life before the civil rights movement.” — WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

“One can essentially choose a page at random and be rewarded by Clarke’s witty, endlessly inventive prose…. The book zips from scene to scene ferried by prose that, like Carl’s BMW, is both showy and muscular.” — THE WINNIPEG REVIEW

“The novel is subtly subversive in the sense of how it capably fleshes out not just a black man, but a man who happens to be black, a vital cultural distinction that lends the novel an air of uncompromising universality…. The story shines a light on how much class defines us, nearly as much as race does.” — NATIONAL POST

“A captivating work.” — OTTAWA CITIZEN


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