The Sleeping Car Porter
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2022 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE
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
"I thought The Sleeping Car Porter was fantastic! It strikes a balance between being about the struggles of being black and gay at that time while not being too heavy handed with it. I enjoyed his constant mental math on how many demerits he might receive for each infraction. The reader really gets a sense of the conflict that Baxter is going through. I really liked reading a book from the perspective of a porter." – Hunter Gillum, Beaverdale Books
“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