Excerpt: Men Walking on Water
This utterly addictive, brilliant novel about rum-running in the 1920s is like The Wire transplanted to Prohibition-era Detroit, by a writer of whom Stephen King has said: "Emily Schultz is my new hero."


Men Walking on Water
opens on a bitter winter's night in 1927, with a motley gang of small-time smugglers huddled on the banks of the Detroit River, peering towards Canada on the opposite side. A catastrophe has just occurred: while driving across the frozen water by moonlight, a decrepit Model T loaded with whisky has broken the ice and gone under--and with it, driver Alfred Moss and a bundle of money. From that defining moment, the novel weaves its startling, enthralling story, with the missing man at its centre, a man who affects all the characters in different ways. In Detroit, a young mother becomes a criminal to pay down the debt her husband, assumed dead, has left behind; a Pentecostal preacher brazenly uses his church to fund his own bootlegging operation even as he lectures against the perils of drink; and across the river, a French-Canadian woman runs her booming brothel business with the permission of the powerful Detroit gangsters who are her patrons.
     The looming background to this extraordinary story, as compelling as any character, is the city of Detroit--a place of grand dreams and brutal realities in 1927 as it is today, fuelled by capitalist expansion and by the collapse that follows, sitting on the border between countries, its citizens walking precariously across the river between pleasure and abstinence. This is an absolutely stunning, mature, and compulsively readable novel from one of our most talented and unique writers.

Excerpt

The man who connected them wasn’t a man anymore, but a body, hidden deep beneath the green ice of the Detroit River. The group of rumrunners huddled on the shore, consulting on what had just happened. All knew the doors of the old Ford had been removed for ease of exit in exactly this circumstance, yet apparently Alfred Moss still sat inside. The Doctor claimed to have seen the car go under and no one had seen the driver since.

Moss was dead: to begin with. “There is no doubt whatever about that,” the Doctor said.

Perhaps Moss had heard the ice cracking, had managed to get one leg out the door, had been caught mid-jump as the vehicle plunged under, its grille like a falling arrow headed for the mud. If so, the fabric of his trousers now flapped grayly, silently. A lone black shoe balanced on the baseboard, poised to leap. This the men imagined. They also knew that Moss’s hands might still grip the wheel— or perhaps the parking brake or the roof’s frame, whatever he had grabbed—ridges of knuckles white with fear, mouth ajar and the water swirling strands of dark hair around deaf ears.

Willie Lynch could picture this more vividly than the others. As the kid in the group, he often rode with Alfred Moss. He knew that the Murray’s Superior Pomade in Moss’s hair would already be undone, though inside Moss’s coat pocket the couple on the orange tin would still smile. His fedora would already have fallen away into the murk.

Or perhaps Moss had managed to get free and swim, had made it up to the crusted ceiling only to bump against the ice, unable to break through or find air before sinking back down, arms and legs limp as strands of seaweed.

Willie watched as the other men scuttled back and forth, searching, still hoping they were wrong. After a while, he climbed down from the bank and started to venture out on the frozen river but was called back. He could feel his face cracking beneath his cap, his eyes glassy. This was the worst thing he’d ever seen; it was intolerable to be forbidden from stretching out his body on top of the frail ice and freezing to death himself in search of the lost man. It had been Alfred Moss, not his own father, who’d finished teaching him to drive. Two brown moles beside Willie’s eye consulted as he squinted. He spat. A small white gob landed on the white ice: proof he wasn’t about to cry.

To the northeast was the anchorage site for the bridge. The men had read or heard that it would be nearly fifty feet wide and rise above their river by 135 feet, but in the dark it was just an island of dirt heaped up on either side of the waterway, a place where the sandhogs worked in hard, short shifts, going down into the concrete tubing below the surface of the water to excavate. The construction site was a rubble of wood and sacks of cement. In the distance, in the moonlight, the round concrete caisson seemed to mock Willie and the men with its shape: a giant life preserver.

The gang turned on the headlamps of their cars, positioned the beams so they could see across the ice. Although the light died at a hundred yards, they agreed the skid Alfred Moss had been pulling, heavy with Scotch, must be gone too. They snapped off their lights. Willie Lynch put his hands in his pockets and scrunched his shoulders. Why do they fucking care about the poteen?

“Where is the second car?” the large man in the homburg bellowed. This was Vern Bunterbart, the heavy, the one they answered to.

“I am the second car,” the Doctor said grimly. He was supposed to be out on the river too, coming back from Canada, following behind the Ford, bringing half the shipment. Sometimes it was Willie and sometimes the Doctor, whose real name was Ernest Krim. The men glanced up the bank where his old truck sat parked. They were silent for a moment.

“You saw it or you heard it?” someone finally asked.

“Both,” Krim replied. He was a thin man with a face like a hammer, and eerily calm about the whole matter, considering he’d known Moss the best of all of them. Willie stared at the Doctor’s frosty green eyes.

“What did you see?” Willie asked.

“Just a spot of dark, then splintering, a sound like a tree struck down the middle. Then the dark dipped. The spot just disappeared.”

“You are sure?” Bunterbart demanded. “How can you be?” He turned around, holding his homburg with one hand and the collar of his fine coat with the other. “A long way out.”

At his words, the group turned again and stared. Along the opposite shore, a hem of lights blurred between Willie’s eyelashes.

“I’m sure,” Krim replied quietly.

The men cursed and clutched their coats closer. They pulled their hats lower. There was a strong wind coming across the vast ice, but Willie didn’t flip up his collar.

“How many cases?” Bunterbart asked one of the others. His voice was like a razor flicking over a strop.

The man chose his words carefully, so carefully he said nothing.

“That many, ya?” Bunterbart huffed, and turned his large body away.

Willie shot a glance at Krim. He didn’t care for the Doctor, but didn’t know why. He liked him better than some, but that went without saying since no one liked Bunterbart. It was something about Krim’s manner. He stood differently from the other men, his eyes often looking up. Willie’s father had called him Krim the Prim. He was a citizen. But then Willie remembered what Alfred Moss always said: the Doctor was a true pal, a blood brother, the one phone call you get. The Kid turned and again searched the frozen river with his eyes.
Publisher: Knopf Canada