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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
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Baxter is a Black, queer, very closeted porter working in 1920s Canada. That’s quite a burden to carry, even without the fear that any minor slipup with his demanding passengers could get him fired. When a disastrous mudslide waylays the train and all of its disorderly passengers for a few agonizing days, Baxter is forced to reckon with his life trajectory and sexuality. Suzette Mayr tells Baxter’s tale with a delicate touch, taking on issues of race and sexuality in an organic, elegant way. Her keen eye for the quirks of human nature means all her characters feel alive and complex. The Sleeping Car Porter is a deeply introspective and often funny novel about hope, fear, and how quickly we can move between the two.
Mayr's dazzling latest (after Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall) tells the story of Baxter, a queer Black train porter, during a trip from Montreal to Vancouver in 1929. While Baxter grinds through endless tasks to keep the passengers happy and comfortable, he endures insufficient meals, sleep deprivation, repressed sexual desires, and the ever-present threat of receiving his 60th demerit, after which a porter is fired. On this particular journey, there are also singular guests to deal with: a romance writer and her adult daughter, a medium who believes her compartment is haunted, a recently orphaned little girl, a spry doctor, and a recluse with a possible stowaway in his cabin. It will all be worth it, however, if Baxter's work as a porter allows him to save enough money to go to dentistry school. Mayr's prose is vivid but never overwrought, capturing the surrealism of intense fatigue in constant motion: "He sits on the hopper again, his only escape, staring into the dark hole between his legs as rail ties blur by in the dark. He misses standing still." Readers will be captivated.