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Fiction Classics

The Deserter

by (author) Douglas LePan

introduction by Scott Rayter

series edited by Michael Gnarowski

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Feb 2019
Classics, City Life, War & Military
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Feb 2019
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2019
    List Price

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A new edition of the classic novel by Douglas LePan.

Returned from the ravages of war, met with a city that offers him only despair, a young man finds himself caught between two opposing worlds — the ordered but empty everyday life of “schedules and obligations,” and the hellish chaos of the city’s underside, a dark world of brutality and vice. Gripped with a restless passion for perfection, haunted by a brief and idealized experience of love, the hero of this poetic, experimental novel lives out in a modern context that most universal of myths: the descent into the underworld to experience initiations and ordeals, and the return with new understanding to the upper world.

About the authors

Douglas LePan was a Canadian writer, diplomat and professor of literature. Born May 25, 1914, LePan served in Italy with the Canadian Army during the Second World War-an experience he never forgot, and one that informed much of his literary output over the course of his career. He spent over a decade in the Canadian foreign service before taking up an academic life, teaching at Queen's University and at the University of Toronto. He is one of a handful of writers to have won the Governor General's Literary Award both for Poetry (in 1953 for The Net and the Sword) and for Fiction (in 1964 for The Deserter). LePan died in Toronto in 1998.

Douglas LePan's profile page

Scott Rayter is an assistant professor, teaching stream, in the Department of English and the Sexual Diversity Studies program at the University of Toronto. He is the co-author of Queer CanLit: Canadian LGBT Literature in English and the co-editor of Queerly Canadian: An Introductory Reader in Sexuality Studies. He lives in Toronto.

Scott Rayter's profile page

Michael Gnarowski co-edited The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, compiled The Concise Bibliography of E nglish Canadian Literature, and edited the Critical Views on Canadian Writers Series for McGraw-Hill Ryerson. He has written for Encyclopedia Americana, The Canadian Encyclopedia, The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography, and The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Gnarowski is professor emeritus at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Michael Gnarowski's profile page


  • Winner, Governor General's Award for Fiction

Excerpt: The Deserter (by (author) Douglas LePan; introduction by Scott Rayter; series edited by Michael Gnarowski)


If the war had not been over, it would have been easier to understand. Then it could have been put down simply to cowardice. But the armistice had been signed two months before; and now the world, as the newspapers kept reassuring their readers, was slowly returning to normal.

At the depot where he was stationed, sentries were still posted immaculately, and during the hours of darkness additional precautions were taken against a surprise attack. But in spite of the commandant’s efforts to keep everything running as though the war was still going on, some signs of relaxation were beginning to appear. The barbed wire around the perimeter of the camp had rusted away in several places and had not been repaired. The roof of one of the air-raid shelters had caved in and nothing had been done about it. And in response to grumbling, the adjutant had had to post a notice to the effect that it was hoped within the next few weeks to receive authority to lift the blackout restrictions.

Meanwhile, they remained in force, and it was in the atmosphere of a swamp that he lay on his bunk each night before going to bed and listened to young recruits boasting about actions they had never been in and to veterans from units that he didn’t know calculating how large a gratuity their years of service would entitle them to and what they were going to do with it. A swamp where stale bubbles kept rising to the surface from dying vegetation. It surprised him how much more he resented the heavy closeness than he had only a few years before. He couldn’t stand it for long; and if the time for lights-out went by without the sergeant coming in, he got up and turned the lights off himself, and then took down the blackouts. That didn’t add to his popularity. From soldiers still reading or rolling dice on the blanket-covered table that stood in the middle of the room came shouts of “What the hell?” and “Who do you think you are?” But the protesting figures gradually melted into bed, still muttering, but not wanting to tangle with him. Partly it was because of the ribbon on his tunic, which carried its own authority, even though he had lost his stripes. Partly it was because they had seen him use his fists two or three times. He had big shoulders and a slim waist, and a body lithe as a sword. Mostly he kept to himself and wouldn’t be provoked. But when occasionally he lost his temper, the room seemed powdered with diamond-dust, scored and slashed with it. So they slunk off to bed and left him to climb in and savour at last a few deep breaths of the air that was blowing in from the pine trees near the rifle range. Then a little later when everything was quiet in the block he would get up and stand at the window, looking into the sky as though it were the face of someone he had known, even of someone he had loved, but blank now, blank, he sometimes thought to himself, as though it had lost its reason.

The ceremonies of darkness and the ceremonies of the day were still being carried out. The guard was mounted, inspections were held, defaulters were marched into the orderly-room, the doctor kept his visiting hours, darkness and day were separated by bugle calls. But the camp had lost its function. Or rather its role had been reversed. The engines that had been used to turn out tank-drivers, machine-gunners, marksmen, signalmen, mechanics, cooks, were now revolving in the opposite direction in order to turn out properly attested civilians, free from clap, their teeth filled, with their documents in order and generously recompensed by a grateful government. It was a triumph of planning and organization for which the staff at headquarters, who had been responsible for the arrangements, could feel especially proud. They had some failures, of course; and, in those cases, they had to call on the assistance of the provost marshal and the psychiatrists and, in due course, of the jails and asylums and homes for incurables. But the wastage was surprisingly small. The assembly lines that had been used for so long to roll out military strength were now working on the whole very successfully to convert it back into civilian potential.

Why did he feel so detached from the whole process? It perplexed him. Always he had wanted to be in the thick of things. When he was in the reinforcement depot he made a nuisance of himself until he was dispatched to a unit. After he had succeeded and been in the artillery for a few months and had served through one campaign, he couldn’t rest until he was transferred to the infantry. Nor was the support company good enough for him; he must be in the attack company. Always closer to the moment’s glittering sword-edge. Now that impulse seemed to have deserted him. He knew that the focus of activity had changed, but this time he didn’t seem to be able to change with it.

In the evening, as he sat by himself in the canteen, the conversation that frothed around him seemed as weak and unlikely as the beer slopped on the table-tops.

“Did you hear what the padre had to say about the need for welders? With all my experience I couldn’t miss. In a year or two I’ll have a machine-shop of my own. You just watch.”

“I’m going to take my gratuity and buy myself a delivery van. I’ve been wondering about a name. What do you think of Spitfire Service? Or perhaps just Speedy Service — in gold letters on a green background?”

“Stay with a big company, that’s what I say. They’ll look after you, pensions, holidays, everything. I’m going back where I came from, and with a promotion. Look, here’s a letter I’ve just had from the personnel office.”

As a soldier at the next table took out a smudged letter from his pocket and handed it around, he saw for a moment this roomful of rogues and scroungers transformed into honest workmen and good husbands and fathers, leading their families to church in their Sunday best. What a hope! Surely the dogs of war were sleeping as savagely in these men’s loins as they were in his. But for a while a merciful illusion clouded them. Even the talk of sex was expurgated a little, as though in anticipation of domestic bliss and propriety. It still suffered from some of the distensions of bravado. But now it dealt not so much with girls picked up anonymously for a night as with wives, either actual or prospective.

“As soon as I get home, I’m going to tell the wife to get up them stairs.”

“No, I’m going to tell her to take a good look around first because she isn’t going to see anything but the bedroom ceiling for days and days.”

“That girl I’ve been kicking around with had better make up her mind. It’s wedding bells or else. I’ve waited long enough to get someone to bring me my slippers.”

He couldn’t help smiling. He didn’t have a girl. Not any more. He wasn’t going to marry. At least not for a long time. He didn’t have any post-war plans. The only purpose he was conscious of was to look for something he thought he’d been given. He didn’t know what it was or where it had been put or even whether it would prove of any value if he could find it. But he knew he must look for it.

It was hard to tell when it was that he decided to light out. Looking back, he seemed to remember a restless, feverish night when he had dreamed of broken spars and an open boat with the planking clammy with sweat and with himself at the tiller, not knowing where he was bound but trusting to a great billowing sail that seemed to know its own way through the diffuse grey light that covered the ocean. Then just before daylight he was brought to the outskirts of a city where all the doors were shut and where no one was about except himself, trudging between cliff-like houses, all alike, high, with four or five storeys beneath a leaden sky, searching through bewildering crescents for the secret of the labyrinth while a thin drizzle sifted down and down, mingling with a fine white dust that was falling from the crumbling masonry and from occasional gaps where the cliff had given way completely. When reveille sounded, he found that he was lying almost naked. During the night he must have kicked off the blankets, and now they were tangled at the foot of his bunk with the rest of his gear, his heavy boots, his fatigue clothes, his webbing, his steel helmet, his two packs. His thick damp socks were lying by themselves, clinging like fungus to the concrete floor. As soon as the blackouts had been put up again and the lights were switched on, he knew that he was going to desert.