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Fiction Historical

The Sleeping Car Porter

by (author) Suzette Mayr

Coach House Books
Initial publish date
Aug 2022
Historical, Gay, General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2022
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Aug 2022
    List Price
  • Downloadable audio file

    Publish Date
    Oct 2022
    List Price

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When a mudslide strands a train, Baxter, a queer Black sleeping car porter, must contend with the perils of white passengers, ghosts, and his secret love affair

The Sleeping Car Porter brings to life an important part of Black history in North America, from the perspective of a queer man living in a culture that renders him invisible in two ways. Affecting, imaginative, and visceral enough that you’ll feel the rocking of the train, The Sleeping Car Porter is a stunning accomplishment.

Baxter’s name isn’t George. But it’s 1929, and Baxter is lucky enough, as a Black man, to have a job as a sleeping car porter on a train that crisscrosses the country. So when the passengers call him George, he has to just smile and nod and act invisible. What he really wants is to go to dentistry school, but he’ll have to save up a lot of nickel and dime tips to get there, so he puts up with “George.”

On this particular trip out west, the passengers are more unruly than usual, especially when the train is stalled for two extra days; their secrets start to leak out and blur with the sleep-deprivation hallucinations Baxter is having. When he finds a naughty postcard of two queer men, Baxter’s memories and longings are reawakened; keeping it puts his job in peril, but he can’t part with the postcard or his thoughts of Edwin Drew, Porter Instructor.

"Suzette Mayr’s The Sleeping Car Porter offers a richly detailed account of a particular occupation and time—train porter on a Canadian passenger train in 1929—and unforcedly allows it to illuminate the societal strictures imposed on black men at the time—and today. Baxter is a secretly-queer and sleep-deprived porter saving up for dental school, working a system that periodically assigns unexplained demerits, and once a certain threshold is reached, the porter loses his job. Thus, success is impossible, the best one can do is to fail slowly. As Baxter takes a cross-continental run, the boarding passengers have more secrets than an Agatha Christie cast, creating a powder keg on train tracks. The Sleeping Car Porter is an engaging and illuminating novel about the costs of work, service, and secrets." – Keith Mosman, Powell's Books


About the author

Shortlisted for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT FictionShortlisted for the Alberta Literary Award for Best FictionLonglisted for the Giller PrizeA seventeen-year-old boy, bullied and heartbroken, hangs himself. And although he felt terribly alone, his suicide changes everyone around him. His parents are devastated. His secret boyfriend's girlfriend is relieved. His unicorn- and virginity-obsessed classmate, Faraday, is shattered; she wishes she had made friends with him that time she sold him an Iced Cappuccino at Tim Hortons. His English teacher, mid-divorce and mid-menopause, wishes she could remember the dead student's name, that she could care more about her students than her ex's new girlfriend. Who happens to be her cousin. The school guidance counsellor, Walter, feels guilty - maybe he should have made an effort when the kid asked for help. Max, the principal, is worried about how it will reflect on the very Catholic school. And Walter, who's been secretly in a relationship with Max for years, thinks that's a little callous. He’s also tired of Max's obsession with some sci-fi show on TV. And Max wishes Walter would lose some weight and remember to use a coaster. And then Max meets a drag queen named Crêpe Suzette. And everything changes. Monoceros is a masterpiece of the tragicomic; by exploring the effects of a suicide on characters outside the immediate circle, Mayr offers a dazzlingly original look at the ripple effects - both poignant and funny - of a tragedy. A tender, bold work.

Suzette Mayr's profile page

Editorial Reviews

“Mayr’s prose is vivid but never overwrought, capturing the surrealism of intense fatigue in constant motion … Readers will be captivated.” – Publishers Weekly, starred review

"In 1929, being a passenger train porter was fraught with challenges...Baxter’s own sleep deprivation is perhaps the most intriguing character of the book. It leads to hallucinations, questionable decisions, and borderline supernatural suggestions."Kirkus Reviews

"Suzette Mayr’s novel The Sleeping Car Porter an artfully constructed story that moves, beguiles, and satisfies." – Brett Josef Grubisic, The Toronto Star

"Suzette Mayr brings to life –believably, achingly, thrillingly –a whole world contained in a passenger train moving across the Canadian vastness, nearly one hundred years ago. As only occurs in the finest historical novels, every page in The Sleeping Car Porter feels alive and immediate –and eerily contemporary. The sleeping car porter in this sleek, stylish novel is named R.T. Baxter –called George by the people upon whom he waits, as is every other Black porter. Baxter’s dream of one day going to school to learn dentistry coexists with his secret life as a gay man, and in Mayr’s triumphant novel we follow him not only from Montreal to Calgary, but into and out of the lives of an indelibly etched cast of supporting characters, and, finally, into a beautifully rendered radiance." – 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury

"Mayr’s new novel, through painstaking historical research, reconstructs the workdays of a Black, lower-class, closeted gay man." – Reinhold Kramer, The Winnipeg Free Press

"Baxter works the trains as they run from Toronto to Winnipeg, through Calgary and Banff to Vancouver. Passengers on board wrestle with the details of their lives: hats and weddings, books and paperwork, drinks and cigars, childhood loss and bad telegrams, boots to be shined, a scrutinized pocket watch, communication with the dead. Baxter continuously serves them, ever watchful, needing perfection. Ten more demerits will get him fired, and a black man hiding his desire for other men has plenty of reasons to fear being targeted by whites with money. Endless patience is required to be a sleeping car porter. He's always exhausted, but it's a job, and he's saving, determined to pay for school and become a dentist who will one day be important. Then he'll be the one riding. For now, his dreams keep him alive, and time spent with people shoved together in tight spaces can shake up whole worlds. In the end, it's a little girl who fully reveals him. She’s just lost her mother and won't sleep, clinging to Baxter instead. This is intensely researched historical fiction that doesn’t feel like history. It feels like heart." – Tim McCarthy, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, WI

"Mayr evokes the mystique of transcontinental travel and the tumult of lives on the margins in this much-anticipated period novel. All aboard!" – Oprah Daily

“I couldn’t help imagining what a film Wes Anderson might make of Suzette Mayr’s The Sleeping Car Porter. The novel’s main character is a gay Black porter riding the rails in 1920’s Canada, coping with a horde of difficult long-haul passengers, including a child who appears to have permanently attached herself to his leg. Terrified that a breach of one of the railway’s insanely restrictive rules will get him fired before he can save enough money for dental school, he amuses himself—and keeps awake on his grueling shifts—by imagining the medical horrors that lie behind the smiles (or grimaces) of his clientele.” – The New York Times

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