In many ways a modern-day Huckleberry Finn, Canoeing with José, invites the reader to travel with the narrator and his young companion, José, as they seek adventure on the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Jon is a middle aged, down-and-out writer of Jewish origin and José is a Native American who identifies (as the note clarifies) as either Lakota or Dakota “depending on the topic and to whom he is speaking” (x). The differences in their heritage, social class, education, and age are salient throughout the book, but it is also clear that what brings these two anti-heroes together is that they have reached the end of their rope. The risky venture of paddling all the way from Minnesota to Hudson Bay allows Jon and José an escape from the immediate crises of a dead-end marriage and problems with the law. Ultimately, by communing with nature and each other, they are forced to face their inner demons. The journey, through backwoods lakes and provincial fishing villages, challenges their commitment and hope in humanity.
Although Lurie’s journalistic prose sometimes strikes more didactic than literary, one strength is his understated insights about human relationships. Recounting many instances of mediocrity during their extended camping trip breaks life down to a series of choices and reactions on a primal level; didn’t bring a poncho? You will get soaked. Get pissed at your friend because you are hungry? He bought you a Snickers bar… Whoops. Insult the wrong guy? Get ready for a bar fight. Canoeing with José is a lesson in cause and effect.
Lurie isn’t afraid to get grimy—literally. The reader can smell the stench of silt-filled socks and boots, in the same way that a lukewarm coke can taste almost as good as a home-cooked meal. After weeks on the canoe, the sound of paddling on the river and Jon’s inner monologue becomes the reader’s soundtrack for this book. The soggy monotony of the canoe trip is reflected in the occasional aimless chapter, and yet, it is precisely this vagabond sensation that gives way to one of the book’s greatest strengths: understated glimpses of the sacred. Interwoven throughout the narrative are sacred places that could easily be overlooked both by the reader and even the narrator himself. In the final chapter of the book, “New Horizons,” Lurie explains that “bdote” means “holy place” in the Native American Dakota language (292). This passage is reflected in Lurie’s belief that the sacred is not always pretty. It does not present itself announced. Canoeing with José reveals that true flashes of “bdote” are all too-easily overlooked, whether it’s an encounter between José and an eagle feather or Jon’s spontaneous tenderness towards a baby he will never see again.
As Jon and José make their way towards Hudson Bay, racialized tension sometimes gets the better of them. In one chapter, Jon makes light of a close-call on the rapids, and José blows up: “White people think it’s fun to have adrenaline rushes. Indians don’t. We wake up in the morning with an adrenaline rush because we don’t know how we’re gonna eat. We gotta find a way to feed our brothers and sisters while our moms smoke crack, and then there’s some police at the door about to put you out because your rent got smoked up” (236). José’s rants reveal that his insecurities haven’t dissipated during some utopian communion with nature. These periodic outbursts serve to reinforce Jon’s own disillusionment with society and the elusive American dream. Jon vacillates between viewing José as a hapless victim of society or a veritable threat to it. Lurie doesn’t shy away from representing his learning curve in dealing with José. More often than not, José’s outbursts push Jon deeper into silent passivity and introspection. Lurie’s realist style invites the reader to examine the failures and downfalls of two very human, screwed up people just trying to survive. Canoeing with José ends just before Jon and José make it to Hudson Bay. With this, the reader realizes that this entire journey was not about the destination; it was about the process. Whether or not they found healing on the turbulent river waters is up for the reader to decide, but one thing is sure, Jon and José started out their canoe trip alone and ended it together.
Canoeing with José
By Jon Lurie
Milkweed Editions, June 2017
Paperback, 302, pp. $16
Judith K. Lang Hilgartner, PhD specializes in Contemporary Latin American Jewish Studies as well as Sephardic Studies. Her work has been published by Cave Moon Press, San Diego Poetry Annual, and the Jerusalem Post. She loves to dance to the rhythm of merengue while making fried plantains. In her free time, Judith enjoys playing piano and reading dictionaries. @LadinoLives.