Tor, 1997, 464 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-55157-5
Many cinephile will remember a spate of body-switching “comedies” around 1988: BIG, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, VICE VERSA, 18 AGAIN… Along with 1977’s FREAKY FRIDAY, these movies used body-switching as an excuse for character-driven comedies of, mostly, mutual redemption. (The latest film of note in this sub-genre, 1997’s FACE/OFF, used slightly-more-plausible face switching as an excuse for a rather good guns’n’mayhem movie.)
Charles de Lint’s Trader is markedly different. Not only is it decidedly not a comedy, but it actually treats the improbable subject of body-switching with a certain realism that always seems to be sorely lacking is the afore-mentioned movies.
For one thing, this isn’t a kid’s story: Trader is mature, comfortably adult fantasy. The hero of the tale is Max Trader, a renowned, introvert maker of guitars. When he suddenly wakes up in the body of an unemployed, despicable loser named Johnny Devlin, he has to face the fact that he has not only inherited Devlin’s problems, but that Devlin (now Trader) doesn’t want anything to do with him. After a fight with Devlin’s old girlfriend, being kicked out of Devlin’s apartment and being unable to return to his old home, Trader finds himself on the streets. What follows is his journey toward redemption.
In a lesser story, Trader could have been faultless; a quiet, introspective man not given to meanness. But part of what gives Trader its power is the realization that Trader himself isn’t as perfect as we could think. We realise that even as average and mild-mannered as Trader is (or we are, for that matter), he still has things to learn to enjoy life at its fullest.
Trader doesn’t only tell a story; without bashing the reader over the head with it, it also contains a surprising amount of not-so-conventional philosophy. Trader is about life, what you make of it, and the friendships that let you go through it.
de Lint’s prose is typically engaging, effortlessly drawing the reader into the story. Characters are very well handled. While this critic isn’t a de Lint reader, the comments read elsewhere about him returning to old friends in Newport seem dead-on accurate.
The novel does have its flaws: part of the last third venture more in some sort of fantasy dreamland where almost anything can happen; a departure from the relatively realistic remainder of the novel. In retrospect, one character’s aggression also seems unwarranted.
With good characters, easy prose, a lot of heart and an undeniable maturity, Trader shows why de Lint is at the top of his field. A strong contender for this year’s Auroras, and a worthwhile read, it is hard to ask much more of this book.