FEBRUARY 15, 2007


Book Excerpt

Consumption by Kevin Patterson

Dr Kevin Patterson's 2006 novel Consumption takes disease as its literal and metaphorical theme. The title refers not only to the old name for tuberculosis, but the devouring effect of the clash between traditional Inuit and 'southern' society. In the vividly wrought, claustrophobic Rankin Inlet of Consumption, that clash mostly makes people unhappy and ultimately leads to murder, suicide and exile. The book's been called "quietly devastating" by the Vancouver Sun and "deceptively simple and gripping" by the Globe and Mail.


Balthazar sipped his beer. He and the priest were listening to "Strutting With Some Barbecue." The priest had been reading an account by a Czech writer who had listened to this music as a boy during the Second World War. "They looked up the title in an English-Czech dictionary, 'walking pompously with a piece of roasted meat'—what could it mean?" They both laughed. "When I was a seminarian, the priests learned of my affection for this music and they punished me. They told me it was carnal music."

"Have you watched MTV?"

"I have, briefly, while looking for the news, yes."

"What would they have said to that?"

"Their heads would have popped right out of their cassocks."

"I suppose you could argue that music worth listening to is always carnal." The priest nodded at that. "People hunger for things. Rhythm and blues is about hunger, perhaps, more than it is about sin." He tapped his foot to the beat.

"Hunger—for liquor and women and dope." Balthazar leaned back, eyes shut and also tapping his foot, teasing the priest.

"Well, yes."

"Hard to imagine anyone enjoying this music who doesn't understand those hungers."

"Keith, if that's your clumsy way of asking if I've ever desired anyone, the answer is yes. I've fallen in love, in fact. Which is not the same as acting upon it, of course."

"Falling in love is certainly an act, in itself."

"It isn't the definitive act. As you know."

Balthazar grinned uncomfortably at the sudden intimacy. "I'm sure anyone human has been in love."

"You know that isn't true, either."

"I suppose."

"Though one could assert the opposite: anyone who has been in love is certainly human."

"Well, here's to us humans."

There was a pause in the conversation as the priest examined what Balthazar had just said. Then he resumed nodding to the bass line. The song finished and then the priest put on Muddy Waters singing slow. "Are you still in contact with the person you allude to?"

"Yes," Balthazar said, and he could see Bernard deciding who it was.

"But you did not act," Bernard said.

"Not in the way you mean, no."

"That is better."

"I'm not sure."

"If you had, would you have maintained your other secrets?"

Balthazar was unable to speak, so Bernard answered for him.

"Either she would have known, and eventually revealed you, or she would have made it unnecessary."

Balthazar nodded. "Which would have been much better, actually."

"To have been content."

"And unafraid."

"Why are you afraid, Keith?"

"God knows."

"Maybe He does. He keeps His own secrets too, in my experience."


Bernard laughed. "Hardly."

It was storming and Baltha-zar had been stuck in the priests' residence for four days, waiting for a flight to Repulse Bay. Father Bernard was near the end of his time there—as was Balthazar, it turned out. At some level, they both knew this. Hence, the revelatory nature of their conversation.

Balthazar stood on the shore of the frozen bay and looked eastward. Under his feet was an amalgam of gravel and frozen sea water that merged imperceptibly into the whiter and flatter sea ice, which stretched all the way to the floe edge. A thin purplish haze hung on the eastern horizon, as the sea water sublimated into the dry and frozen air hanging over it. He spotted a figure walking into town. As he stood there the figure grew slowly larger, weaving its way between ridges of soft snow and heaped-up shelves of sea ice. It walked unerringly toward Balthazar, and when the figure was thirty feet from the shore he lifted his hood off his head. It was Simon Alvah.

"Hello, Doctor."

They had never been introduced, but Alvah had been there long enough that they each knew perfectly well who the other was.

"Mr. Alvah."

"Out for a walk?"

"Nothing like what you've just been up to."

"Well, that's purely a function of circumstance, my boat being as far away as it is. If I were doing it over again, I'd have anchored closer to town. This trudge is getting old."

"Keeps one trim, I suppose."

"I'm trying to put on weight. Do you have any idea how cold a steel boat is, out here?"

"My technique: Cheez Doodles and beer."

Nodding. "Things still pretty nuts around here?"

Balthazar blinked. "Oh, you mean the murder and everything."

"Especially the 'and everything' part."


"Does anyone around here ever actually talk about anything out loud?"

"Not to me."

"How long have you been here?"

"Twenty years or so."

"Do you think they talk out loud even to themselves?"


"So you actually got any of them Cheez Doodles and beer you mentioned?"


"Wanna share?"

Justine had an appointment to see him, but when Balthazar looked eagerly into the waiting room for Victoria, he was disappointed to see only her daughter sitting there. He waved to her.

"Hi, Justine. Is your mom late?"

"She's not coming."


"Is that okay?"

"Sure, if it's okay with you."


He closed the door behind her and sat down at his desk. She took the chair beside it.

"So how are you?"

"I'm okay. You?"

"I'm fine. Your mom okay?"

"She's worried about Marie."

"Of course. You must be too."

"I am."

"Is that what you wanted to talk about?"

"Not really."

"Because, I can't really, you know."

"I know. She's told me everything anyway."

"So what can I do for you?"

"I want to start on the pill."

"Your mom know about this?"

"Not really."

He dropped his eyes to her chart. "Okay. You're going to need to have a Pap test and everything. I'll set it up with one of the nurses."


"Is there anything you need to ask about the various contraceptive options?"


"Okay." Normally the nurses handled this sort of work. And normally when he had this kind of conversation, the girl would be pawing at the door by now. Justine sat in her chair, looking straight at him, her eyes locked on his Adam's apple, it appeared.

"What's on your mind, Justine?"

She looked at him. "So, not talking about Marie or anything, how would someone know if they were going crazy?"

"You're having a hard time with all this, huh? Your dad's death and everything."

She nodded.

He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "See, that's the thing, we're all just about going crazy half the time. Anyone who's been through what you have lately is, anyway. Do you ever think about hurting yourself?"

She shook her head.

"That's all anyone can expect of you. And if you start thinking about that, it wouldn't be so surprising either. Just don't do anything about it. And come see me."

"Dr. Balthazar?"


"It's okay with me if you tell my mother I was here."

"I can't see why the matter would come up."

"I'm just saying. I'm not hiding anything"

"I understand."

Excerpted from Consumption by Kevin Patterson. Copyright 2006 Kevin Patterson. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.



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