Books

Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

Alligator

A Novel

by Lisa Moore

“The book’s brutal humor may, at its best, put you in mind of Flannery O’Connor … Moore’s spare, economical writing is full of offhand beauty. Her images are so surefooted they give you the impression of having been rendered not merely in the best words available but in the only words imaginable.” –Todd Pruzan, New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date September 19, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7025-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00
  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Publication Date May 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4813-2
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

Lisa Moore’s wickedly fresh first novel–a Canadian best seller, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canadian and Caribbean region), and a Globe and Mail Book of the Year–moves with the swiftness of an alligator in attack mode through the lives of a group of brilliantly rendered characters mingling in contemporary St. John’s, Newfoundland.

St. John’s is a city whose spiritual location is somewhere in the heart of Flannery o’Connor country. Its denizens jostle one another in uneasy arabesques of desire, greed, and ambition, juxtaposed with a yearning for purity, depth, and redemption. Colleen is a seventeen-year-old would-be ecoterrorist, drawn inexorably to the places where alligators thrive. Her mother, Beverly, is cloaked in grief after the death of her husband. Beverly’s sister, Madeleine, is a driven, aging filmmaker who obsesses over completing her magnum opus before she dies. And Frank, a young man whose life is a strange anthology of unpredictable dangers, is desperate to protect his hot-dog stand from sociopathic Russian sailor Valentin, whose predatory tendencies threaten everyone he encounters.

Alligator is a remarkable book, a suspenseful, heartfelt, and sexy story that examines the ruthlessly reptilian and painfully human sides of all of us.

Praise

“The book’s brutal humor may, at its best, put you in mind of Flannery O’Connor ” Moore’s spare, economical writing is full of offhand beauty. Her images are so surefooted they give you the impression of having been rendered not merely in the best words available but in the only words imaginable.” –Todd Pruzan, New York Times Book Review

“Morre’s writing is on a level all her own. Her sentences ignite, and her word choices are often genius. She writes with such detail and emotion… moving confidently from one perspective to another until the common threads of despair, greed, lust and redemption collide in a tale so hauntingly beautiful, so richly told, that you’re sorry when it’s over.” Helena Ubinas, The Miami Herald

“Compelling and rewarding . . . rich with human feeling and insight. Moore has a keen ear for both dialogue and a well-turned phrase, and the writing is suffused with a reckless joy.” –Quill & Quire (starred review) 

“A carefully crafted microcosm of time and place featuring nuanced characters who quickly gain readers’ sympathy or horror as their pasts and futures unravel”.Highly recommended.” –Rebecca Stuhr, Library Journal (starred review)

“Superb… Sharp and shifty.” Karla Starr, Entertainment Weekly

“Not just an atmospheric novel. It is also a riveting thriller.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“A beautifully composed novel… Lisa Moore writes as lyrically as any of her peers, creating line after line, paragraph after paragraph about plain, grim, North American life made beautiful by the telling of it.” Alan Cheuse, The Chicago Tribune

“For readers that savor indelible characters: from the widowed mom of an ecoterrorist to an alligator wrestler named Loyola, Moore conjures up a host of oddballs.” –People (Book Club Pick)

“Moore transcends language and goes straight for the nervous system.” –Susan Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“An utterly gorgeous gathering of images.” –See Magazine

“[Moore’s] writing–bluntly–is a terrific turn-on for all sexes and all ages . . . she’s bold, vivid, imagistic, resonant. . . . Alligator glints with wit and jarring insight.” –The Globe and Mail

“A writer who is at the top of her game and a novel of distinct merit.” –Atlantic Books Today

“Lisa Moore is a highly inventive wordsmith. . . . [Her] rhythmic sentences and powers of description create a strange reality for her readers as she writes of a place and time that is at once modern and mythic, and wholly her own.” –Books in Canada

“Heavy with luminous detail, Moore’s fully imagined characters and their dramas possess complexity.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Lisa Moore brings to her pages what we are always seeking in fiction and only find in the best of it: a magnetizing gift for revealing how the earth feels, looks, tastes, smells, and an unswerving instinct for what’s important in life. . . . Ms. Moore can flat-out write.” –Richard Ford

Praise for Lisa Moore:

“[Moore] has a genius for nailing the physical world on the page.” –The Globe and Mail

“Nuance and cunning, and every time, of all the possible words, exactly the right word. The making of a wondrous fiction demands both compassion and hard choices and Lisa Moore seems born to it.” –Bonnie Burnard, author of A Good House

‘moore is one of those rare writers who can change the way you see the world, who can make your own life feel infinitely more fragile, more real.” –Michael Crummey, author of The Wreckage

Awards

Short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Caribbean and Canadian region
Long-listed for the Orange Prize 2007

Excerpt

It starts off there’s an alligator with its jaws open on a dirt road. The man’s back is bare and gleaming with sweat, and those trees they have, hanging with moss. The whole thing is overexposed. The sun is relentless. A crowd has gathered around the man and the alligator.

There are kids in the front, a little girl with blond hair and a silver helium balloon tied to her wrist.

The balloon looks hot. For some reason the camera lingers on the balloon. Perhaps the cameraman has forgotten what he’s supposed to be doing. The balloon looks like a hole burned through the sky. There’s no wind, but the balloon jerks when the little girl shifts her weight. It jerks to the side and bobs and then settles, becomes still. There isn’t a cloud. The little girl’s blond hair is spread over her shoulders and bits of sunlight come through it and some of her hair is full of static and it stands up and the sun makes it buzz with light. The alligator footage was part of a training video about safety in nuclear power plants.

Some plant in Ontario.

My Aunt Madeleine made a lot of industrial training videos in the 1970s and 1980s. For a while safety videos were her bread and butter. She had a niche. I was watching Aunt Madeleine’s archival footage and came across a man who puts his head in an alligator’s mouth.

There’s something low-budget about the event. The man is strutting around, trying to rouse the crowd. He has a sheen and there are beads of sweat all over his back and he is trying to create anticipation. But he looks exhausted by the heat.

The alligator doesn’t move. It looks like a tree trunk in the middle of the road.

But it also looks untrustworthy. The way it stays still makes it look sly, though it may just be asleep. It’s probably asleep is what’s going on.

A shimmering curtain of heat rises from the dirt road and the man walks through it. This shimmer makes everything behind it look saturated with colour and blurred. The child with the balloon has a red dress that seems to lift and float over the person beside her, an elderly woman in a straw hat sitting in a lawn chair. Two walking canes rest against the woman’s knees. The aluminum frame of the chair looks like it would burn your skin.

Several people in the crowd are fanning themselves with pieces of paper that must be some sort of program. The veil of heat is a warning, like what you might see in a crystal ball, of something bad.

Then there’s a cut.

I’ve also been downloading the beheadings off the Net. They are available. The wet concrete wall behind and a man in a black hood kneeling on a concrete floor next to what appears to be a drain, and a few people amble past the camera behind him, then out comes the machete. It’s slow and gritty and takes a while to download, or it downloads instantly. I never watch further than out comes the machete but I watch as a kind of duty because I don’t want that man to be alone. It looks like the courtyard of a compound. You can see the leaves of palm trees over the top of the cinderblock wall. It looks hot there too.

For a while I watched one of the beheadings every night, the man with the hood, two men behind him with rifles, a glint when the sun strikes the bayonet. After the second glint on the bayonet the hooded man stops walking and the hood turns toward the camera. He’s small-boned, this man, and his hands are tied behind his back. Just briefly, his head turns toward the camera, though he probably doesn’t know what he’s turning toward. One of the soldiers behind him, they look like soldiers, gives him a nudge. I watch because how lonely to die so far from home with nobody in attendance.

I’m attending.

I stop watching before they commit the act, not because I’m afraid to, but out of respect. This is in a bedroom painted pink and a pink canopy over the bed in a house in the suburbs of St. John’s, up behind the Village Mall. I have a high-speed connection to help with homework. I go into the kitchen for supper and there’s Mom.

Mom says,Why the face? You’ve always got a face on you.

I often sleep over at Aunt Madeleine’s and watch her old footage. She’s saved all the takes from pretty much everything she’s ever shot. It’s a nuclear power plant and there’s a scientist talking. I’m watching the footage and I’m reading Cosmo. Reading is not the word, flipping, leafing. I like the crinkle of the pages and the weird dresses and the raunchiness you come across. Big jewels and bulimia, perfume bottles and lots of glossy mouths ready to whisper something dirty.

A nuclear power plant on the mainland, the guy is talking.

He says, A distinction must be made between the safe operation of the nuclear power plant and protection against sabotage. He cocks an eyebrow, like, is he ever smart.

Cut.

The best part of the footage is always Madeleine, offcamera, yelling cut.

Sometimes I see Madeleine in the footage. The camera swerves and she’s pacing with her arms folded, looking at the floor. She’s younger, much younger, and she’s crouched with her back against a wall next to a stainless-steel cylinder, which is the kind of ashtray they had in public places back then.

She’s always smoking, eyes squinted, patting her back pockets for a notebook, silver hoops tangled in her black hair. A pencil tucked behind her ear.

The scientist is trying to talk about sabotage and this is pretty much before sabotage.

This is before the twin towers and web sites that show a mounted rifle aimed at a corral of exotic animals and for a fee you shoot from your armchair. You press Enter and an emu goes down.

Emus and orangutans lope through the crosshairs of a mounted rifle somewhere in Montana and you watch on your screen and kapow, they send it to you in the mail. An emu on ice chips, via PayPal.

Or the bum-fight videos you can find on the Net. A Jeep pulls up and five guys jump out and they attack a pile of cardboard and filthy blankets in a back alley and two bums crawl out from beneath the frost-coated debris they’re sleeping under. The bums are bearded and lost and the five men from the Jeep beat them on the head with billy clubs, these poor half-retarded alcoholics with their arms thrown up to protect their ears; they beat them until the bums agree to fight each other so they can make a video that they’ll post. Like something on the Animal Planet channel, only winos.

I saw a bum fight on a plasma screen at a party in Mount Pearl but eventually the police were called because the parents were in Florida, because of the noise. Everybody cleared out, but I saw through the front window as I was heading down the street, the four cops standing in front of the plasma screen, their brawny shoulders slumped, like they couldn’t believe what they were watching.

The scientist is talking nuclear accidents and I go into the kitchen to make a peanut butter and honey sandwich. He’s talking risk assessment and creating default systems that activate when other default systems fail. Water coolants and bugs in the programming.

Someone put a finger in the peanut butter.

There’s a gouge the width of a finger. The honey has crystallized. It’s gone whitish and hard and it’s a squeeze bottle. It makes farting noises. I love Madeleine because she has honey and multigrain bread, and the smell of her cashmere sweaters and her big silver jewellery. She’s always rushing and she has grocery bags or video equipment or luggage because she’s just off some red-eye from Paris or Madagascar. Once, I saw a black shawl get away from her and go flying over the pavement, tripping all over itself, until it caught on a hedge.

There’s an article in Cosmo about winding a scrunchy around your lover’s balls to maximize his orgasm. Guaranteed to double his pleasure, it says.

There’s a diagram. You just wind that sucker around the scrotum, and this wows him so much he never leaves you because he’s not going anywhere because you’ve done this incredible thing with the scrunchy and he’s immensely grateful. I’m just sitting on the couch, leafing through.

Then there’s the actual nuclear power plant and it’s all chrome and steam. It’s all shiny surfaces and echoes and ominous footfalls, which people forget the importance of the sound effects in a safety video.

The guy’s voice is still going about safety. Safety this and safety that.

There are pistons dropping into cylinders, pipes sighing, gusts of steam lit by cherry-coloured Exit signs or orange lights and beeps and dings and shrill whistles like kettles that sound not very state-of-the-art.

Make sure the scrunchy isn’t too tight, then just tickle his balls a little and see what happens. I know soon they will have a shot of a mushroom cloud because any excuse for a mushroom cloud, wait for it, wait.

There’s a Dr.Newman who says about the flow of blood and engorgement and tumescence and the scrunchy will tighten during the normal course of and if you put your mouth.

And there it is, billowing, smoky, and lurid gold underneath, against an aqua blue sky, spreading over the desert. What we don’t want to happen. What they have the capability of in China now. What they have the capability of in who knows where else. A dime a dozen, these mushroom-cloud shots.

There can be no strangeness while watching the footage because it’s random. Everything is strange. Strange boils over into strange. But then something strange happens. We are out of the nuclear power plant, suddenly, and there is the man and the alligator. But there’s also narration.

The man gets down on his knees before the alligator.

He has a handkerchief and he’s sweating. The scientist is narrating about how you must always follow the exact same procedure in any sort of dangerous work in order to achieve safety, whether we’re talking nuclear power plants or circus work.

He says, This man always wipes the sweat from his face before he puts his head in the alligator’s jaws, because if anything, even a drop of sweat, touches the alligator’s tongue it will cause an instinctive trigger and the jaws will snap shut.

But, as you will see, on this day of extreme temperatures in Louisiana, this performer forgot to wipe one side of his face.

Watch closely.

The man does wipe one side of his face, but he forgets the other side.

And, unfortunately, a drop of sweat falls onto the alligator’s tongue and triggers an instinctive response.

The crowd rushes backwards, stumbling, falling, getting up, spreading out. People trip over the abandoned lawn chair and the walking canes.

The man’s body is flicked back and forth. His fists are on the alligator’s snout for a moment. He’s flopped over and flopped back. His legs are kicking. Then, on his bare back, stripes of blood because of the claws, or being dragged in the dirt. The alligator shakes his head as if he’s having a disagreement. He really disagrees. He disagrees vehemently. The alligator is trying hard to tear the man’s head from his shoulders. Everything about the way the animal moves is repulsive and quick. Its tail stamps and lashes the man into the dirt.

The camera keeps rolling because maybe the man, should he survive, will want to view the accident later.

Or maybe he will want it viewed by others.

There must be a school where they teach, don’t turn off the camera. Because the cameraman forgets to turn the camera off, though for long stretches the only thing in the frame is dirt.

For long stretches, it’s dirt and the toe of the cameraman’s boot. Veils of dirt float across the frame and a black boot scuffs in and out and there’s a jerk and the alligator and the man are back in the centre of things.

He is not dead, his legs are moving.

How long will it take?

And then there is a corridor. An empty corridor of white walls and tile and the colour bars.

Peanut butter stuck to the roof of my mouth. I rewind and watch and rewind and watch. I look for some reason to believe the man is still alive. If you watch for long enough you will see everything.

I watch until Madeleine comes home. She leans against the door frame with her arms folded under her chest. She tugs at her amber pendant, back and forth, on the chain. It’s the beginning of August and we’ve had weather in the high twenties for three weeks. Madeleine has a dewy look from the heat; she’s tanned and blousy and she’s getting ready to shoot the second half of a big feature film she’s working on.

He’s still alive, she says. He runs an alligator farm in Louisiana, an ecological reserve.

Loyola, she says.

She pushes herself off the door frame with one shoulder and goes into the kitchen and then I hear the frying pan. I hear cupboard doors and oil sizzling, glasses clinking. Madeleine will cook at midnight if she’s hungry.

She comes back out and stands and watches the footage with me.

Loyola somebody, she says. It’ll come to me. Nice guy.

She has a glass of vodka with ice and tonic and she works one toe behind the strap of her sandal and kicks it off. She hobbles over, still wearing one high heel, and drops into the leather couch and kicks off the other sandal too, and removes her rings. Big silver rings, with amber and turquoise, and they clink on the glass coffee table as she puts them down.

He lived through that, she says. Loyola Rosewood.

Madeleine’s entirely consumed with her new film. She acts like someone in a dream.

I rewind to the beginning. The man is strutting around the perimeter of the crowd again and his stomach is washboard ridges and his fists are by his hips and he has serious muscles. He has a proud, worn-out look. There is the silver balloon burning a hole in the sky, the kinetic halo of sunlight in the girl’s hair.

I had a thing with that guy, Madeleine says. An ice cube in her glass busts open.

The alligator guy?

We had a little thing.

Reading Group Guide

1. How does the first chapter–skillfully and shockingly–hurtle you forward into the novel’s world? What kinds of pictures and devices does the author use to convey the sense that it may be an unusually dangerous and cruel place?

2. The book’s narrative, like that of some independent movies, takes place in a kind of split frame, alternating the stories of Colleen, Frank, Beverly, Madeleine, and Valentin and according them equal importance. The characters’ thoughts flash back constantly to the past, and then forward again. What does this disjointed framework say about the characters and their relationships?

3. Newfoundland, thinks Valentin, is “a cold and ugly island that hardly existed, could not be found on many maps’ (p. 77). How does the island shape its inhabitants? Do they feel isolated, adrift, stranded in their own lives? How does Moore contrast this with the image of the cruise ships that are often docked in the harbor?

4. As Beverly finds out that her teenaged daughter, Colleen, has been arrested, a TV screen in her home shows wrecking balls smashing into buildings all over the world. Where else do images from videos, computers, and TVs seem to parallel the characters’ emotions? What could Moore be saying about modern life with these comparisons?

5. Colleen remembers that the Christmas cologne she gave David, her beloved stepfather, ended up “under the sink in the guest bathroom . . . the plastic window of the box covered in a fur of dust” (p. 31). What are other times in the novel when the overt actions of love seem purposeless? Do Moore’s depictions of love found and lost, fought for and abandoned, long-lasting and strong seem typical? What is the ideal form of love as presented in the novel?

6. “There’s a point,” Isobel remarks, “when there’s more behind you than what’s ahead. It’s called regret. It can happen any time in a life–when what has happened is more vivid than what will happen” (p. 190). During the novel, Madeleine and Isobel often think back to their first loves, the most intense and satisfying that they’ve known. Isobel seems to be saying that there is only one “prime” in any person’s lifetime. Do you agree?

 7. When Colleen nearly dies in a car accident, the man she’s driving with tells her what he’s been thinking. He gives it to her straight. “This is for free, Colleen. There’s only life. There’s not the life you are living and the life you might have lived” (p. 150). What life does she suddenly realize she has been mourning for years? Do her personality and her actions change, after this incident, for the better? Is this true-to-life?

8. Frank’s thrift and his hard work are heroic. Yet in the novel’s harsh world, he can’t succeed. Why not? What qualities might be more useful to him than mere virtue?

9. Frank’s terrible fate is foreshadowed throughout the novel. For example, there is a Haunted House walking tour whose leader always seems to point to Frank’s house, where a grisly murder once happened. What are other signs that a painful reckoning is coming?

10. Beverly is perhaps the novel’s most ordinary character. She is also, unlike the others, patient and stoic. “It was a matter of putting your weight behind something, all your weight. Giving yourself over to a chore, believing it was worthwhile,” she thinks to herself (p. 100). Does her bland steadiness come to seem admirable to you? Or do you feel she plays it too safe?

11. Madeleine is obsessed with the film she’s directing, a first feature that she hopes will be her final ‘monument” (p. 302). On its behalf, she’ll attempt the impossible–even airlifting horses by helicopter. Who are the other artists in the novel? What are they willing and unwilling to sacrifice for their art?

12. With her ‘monument” still unfinished, Madeleine suffers a heart attack. “The great monuments,” she thinks as she’s dying. “You go out of your way to see them, but they never stick in your memory” (p. 303). During this final scene, she thinks of her ex-husband Marty and his new child. Does she have regrets? Why did she choose to leave him?

13. Throughout the novel we are aware of worms clustering in the trees overhead, infesting them like a kind of plague. Not even the scientists are sure whether the worms will succeed in killing the island’s green elms. When Madeleine dies, the plague seems to dissolve into a rapture of white moths. Does this ending–painful death, mixed with release–seem hopeful to you, or despairing?

14. Frank’s mother has died from cancer; Valentin’s has disappeared. Colleen’s mother is paralyzed by the loss of her husband, unable to fully love. Does their lack of a mother stunt these characters in any way? Do they bring to mind any fairy tales or myths?

15. Valentin carefully plots a crime to make his fortune so that he can escape Newfoundland. Did you ever think he would succeed? Does he ever falter or show any compassion whatsoever? Do you think this is the end of his story?

16. The novel’s heart of darkness–its green, lush center–is Colleen’s visit to the Louisiana reserve where Loyola lives. There, she is almost bitten by one of his alligators. What do you think the alligator in the title represents? Which of the characters risks the jaws of death the way Loyola does?

17. Frank and Isobel finally meet at the end, when she buys business cards from the copy shop where he works. Isobel wants to leave them grandly blank, but Frank says, “You’re going to have to say something” (p. 299). Now that Valentin’s great fire has burned itself out, are there new signs of affirmation and rebirth in the novel’s landscape? How does the author hint that Frank and Isobel’s lives, at least, are going to improve?

Suggestions for further reading:

River Thieves by Michael Crummey; This All Happened and The Big Why by Michael Winter; So Beautiful by Ramona Dearing; A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews; Wildlife and Independence Day by Richard Ford; Degrees of Nakedness and Open by Lisa Moore