The most expensive book I own isn’t old, it isn’t a hardback, and it isn’t even very good.
The fiction debut of William C. Heine, editor of Ontario’s London Free Press, it came out in 1974 from Paperjacks “The Canadian Paperback company.” It’s an end-of-the-world novel that is essentially a maple-flavored version of Stephen King’s The Stand and it’s supposedly the basis for the Steven Seagal movie, The Patriot, even though they have almost nothing in common besides a super-plague. It is also a cause of great consternation among the few people who’ve read it because the main character is neither the last of anything, nor Canadian.
(Warning: because this paperback costs about $90 I’m going to assume no one’s rushing to pick it up, so spoilers ahoy!)
Eugene Arnipoor is an engineer living in Montreal when a plague appears in the United States and, like power ballads and anti-piracy bills, eventually spreads into Canada. It’s one of those diseases invented by impatient authors that kills everyone who comes into contact with it in about 20 minutes. On top of that, it’s airborne and moves faster than Fedex. You can be standing 50 feet away from someone who’s infected and suddenly — whammo! — you’re on the ground dead so the plot can keep moving. No awkward and prolonged symptomatic period here.
At the first sign of trouble, Eugene smacks his wife in the face because she’s getting all panicky (“Honey, I’m not kidding. This is serious. You do what I tell you. And don’t argue, because I’ll belt you one even harder. I mean it.”), packs she and their two boys into a single-engine plane, and flies to a hunting and fishing camp in remotest Quebec where they wait out the plague while learning to live with nature and…themselves.
The reason Eugene is so macho and quick to take action is because he’s not actually Canadian. He’s an American living in Canada. He and his wife have applied for citizenship but their papers don’t come through until just as the book begins and the world ends, meaning that the title should actually be, The Last Naturalized Canadian. But the Arnipoors love Canada, really they do…
“They had enjoyed their years in Canada, made many friends, had come to understand the Canadian parliamentary system, and agreed that it was far more flexible and effective than the rigidity of the American system of divided constitutional responsibility. They liked the sophistication of Montreal’s bilingual culture and, if not slower at least more gracious, the Canadian way of life.”
Despite the siren song that is the Gracious Canadian Way of Life, Eugene is American all the way through and the book only really catches fire once he heads south of the 49th parallel to the dead zone that is the US of A. The first third of the book at the fishing camp is 50 awesome pages of My Side of the Mountain-style survivalism as Eugene hunts, guts deer, puts a cabin INSIDE ANOTHER CABIN to keep his family warm (so American!), and dresses wounds. His wife, Jan, turns into some kind of middle-aged sex monkey and they lay down a lot of sweet, sweet lovemaking because nothing says, “Let’s bone!” the way the deaths of millions of people do. Eugene’s two kids turn into miniature Jerry Potts, they find where to get honey, they weather two winters together, they mill their own flour, they all take up the wholesome hobby of whittling, and then they all die.
Right there on page 86, Eugene’s entire family dies when an Indian (Native Canadian, please) walks by the camp. He’s far away, but he’s upwind, and within minutes they’re all dead except for Eugene who is apparently a carrier, too. After burying his wife and kids and their mattresses, Eugene recovers and heads for Partytown (aka America), and that’s when this book freaks out and gets funky. Within two weeks, he’s totally and completely over his grief and bedding, or attempting to bed, every survivor he meets with a pulse. If he’s the last anything, he’s the last swinging stud. He humps pretty much everything that moves, kills some folks, finds a lunatic occupying the Oval Office (maybe this is a pro-Canadian book after all?), and gets a total rage on to destroy the Soviet Union.
By punching it in the face!
Communists really burn Eugene’s butt, and in a country where only a few thousand people are still alive he manages to find opportunities to give at least five anti-Communist lectures to anyone who’ll listen. According to Eugene, see, democracy is a holy mission and America is all about personal responsibility and folks taking care of themselves and their neighbors. It’s not about big government it’s about freedom. It’s like reading a book where Ron Paul is the main character.
In Canada, it’s all quiet survival, where a few small farming communes have sprung up, and life is all silence and quiet contemplation of nature. The second Eugene heads to America the book is all about a lunatic in the Oval Office, nuclear attacks from Soviet subs, assassination attempts, and insane, sex-crazed love cults trying to kill him. Towards the end, things take another hairpin turn when Eugene’s latest girlfriend is killed in a Russian attack (because, clearly, the Commies engineered this whole plague and now they’re trying to repopulate an empty America). When his wife and two sons were killed, Eugene grieved quietly, buried them, and drove to Ottawa to marinate in despair for a few days. When his new gal pal is killed he a) finds a Communist sympathizer and tortures him for several pages, b) sends a radio message to the Soviets that they’re a bunch of girls and America is the greatest country of all, and c) he goes on a suicide mission to spread the plague to the Soviet Union via the Bering Strait, figuring that killing a few hundred million Commies will even the score.
This is where the book climbs up a belfry and starts screeching incoherently as, 50 pages from the end, the plot suddenly introduces dozens of new characters and splits its attention between Eugene’s kamikaze run, the plight of the Soviet commander tasked with stopping him, a complicated plot by the British and American government in exile to engineer a coup in the Kremlin, and the scientists trying to find a vaccine. Needless to say, the stinky Soviet scientists are too dumb to find a cure, but the awesome British scientists who say things like “Rotten turn, old sport,” totally find one in about five seconds.
I worry that the Mounties aren’t prepared for
the end of the world.
The Last Canadian is one of those treasures of trash fiction, like an extra-dimensional probe sent from a dying universe where Canada is the greatest country of all. But it’s a sign of the inherent weakness of that concept that the book only springs to true, trashy life when the last Canadian abandons Canada and ventures to the United States. Because America…is where excitement happens!
(Want more Canada? Try the Canadian Pulp Fiction Archive)