1815 A ‘stacking of visions’
In the Defense of Liberty: a novel
by Keith Maillard
Calgary: Freehand Books, 2023
$24.95 / 9781990601415
Reviewed by Lenore Rowntree
When the story opens, it’s the middle of the afternoon, in the month of June. Mason is in a stranger’s truck rolling toward Merida University through “beautiful goddamned Ohio Country, all that green and golden light.” It’s the summer Barry Goldwater is locked in a battle for President against LBJ, the situation in Vietnam is ramping up, and racial unrest in Mississippi has the attention of academics and progressives everywhere. Mason is about to begin his fourth year as a History major. He has received a “big deal” scholarship, which means he can go straight into a Master’s program after he graduates. He’s not sure he wants to do this. But he probably should. If he doesn’t, he will get drafted.
The trucker Mason is hitching with wonders about Mason’s long hair. Whether the girls like him with “all that hair.” “Yeah, some girls,” Masons answers. But what’s most on his mind is, “Why were they never cute, the guys who made passes at him?”
Mason is sexy like a retro Sabi Mehboob, the non-binary millennial played by Bilal Baig in the hit CBC television show Sort Of. Mason and Sabi both like to dress up. They both rock long hair, they both like makeup. Men and women are equally attracted to them. The attraction goes both ways, especially for Mason. The big difference is In the Defense of Liberty, the year is 1964. Mason cannot go out in public dressed the way he’d like because “somebody could fucking well kill” him.
One of the brilliant qualities of the book is its stop-action setting. What better way to suspend social observation than to set it in a small, university town, in the dead of summer, when nothing— “Only a few classes going, mostly remedial shit, all his friends left town”—appears to be happening? Things are so slow, “Mason could see sun motes floating … but they seemed a million miles away.”
Mason is lonely this sticky summer. Soon, he is attracted to the house where a small group of graduate students go to party, that is, when they’re not working on a thesis or nursing a limp TA career. In part, Defense is a coming-of-confidence story. Mason is at that age when you hang out with slightly older peers, believing them to be so together, only to find out they’re as unravelled as you are, and paradoxically you somehow gain confidence.
An intense story of fumbled love unfolds between Mason, Lorianne, a frustrated young wife and mother married to Henry, a failing academic, and Jessie, an enigma with whom Mason has a crush “about the size of a football stadium.” In the honey haze of summer, the four interact, at times in the vicinity of fraught. They reflect on the polarity of history, on the woes of integration—even though none of them ever directly interacts with anyone of colour. Some of them are early feminists: “you can’t create a slave class until you’ve subjugated women.” And some are concerned with Goldwater’s reminder that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” and worried about guns and violence.
The connection between this book and Keith Maillard’s memoir The Bridge: Writing Across the Binary is noteworthy. I read the memoir last year. It’s charming and reflects primarily on Maillard’s life as a child and teen—he seems the sort of kid you wish had lived on your street, so you could have been friends when you were both ten years old. And then we have Mason, the fictional twenty-year-old you wish you’d met in university.
I am not suggesting Mason is an alter-ego for the author, but one knows with certainty from reading the memoir that Maillard has lived the life about which he writes in Defense. Reading the two books is greater than the sum of their parts. They’re highly recommended. In an ideal world, the binary of sexuality wouldn’t be something we need to talk about. But especially for those who seek initiation, reading the fiction and the memoir in close proximity is enlightening.
Defense is written from the heart and feels emotionally true. The characters pull us along with their issues and desires. And they come to a spectacular ending that is satisfyingly inevitable, yet not predictable.
The best works of fiction are time machines that take us backwards and forward. They live on because they are not tethered to any one time. We don’t read Bronte to find out about Victorian England; we read to find out about now. In the Defense of Liberty is not only untethered to its era, it is a fine example of a contemporary view from a historical perspective—the seeds we sowed then are the seeds we still sow now. The stacking of visions is powerful.
Lenore Rowntree‘s latest book is the linked collection See You Later Maybe Never. Her works also include Cluck, a novel, and the anthology Hidden Lives: true stories from people who live with mental illness. Her plays have been produced in Vancouver and on the Sunshine Coast. She is one of the founders of Fig:ment Magazine a literary and arts magazine about mental health. She is currently working on a memoir about growing up with a sister who lives with complex mental health issues. Lenore resides in Vancouver and Gibsons, BC. Editor’s note: Lenore Rowntree has recently reviewed the work of Carol Matthews.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster