David Slaney is on the lam and has been for three hours when we first meet him, skidding down an embankment in his orange prison overalls.
It's June 14, 1978 and Slaney will turn 25 the following day. He's been inside for four years. We're in Nova Scotia, but he's from Newfoundland.
The thought of going back to jail makes "the elastic give out in his socks". But if he is caught - the title and the curtailment of freedom it represents loom large over every page of Lisa Moore's novel - then that is exactly where he will go, his sentence for dope smuggling extended for the additional crime of having absconded.
Loading article content
Even more than not wanting to go back to prison, Slaney wants to retrace the steps that took him there in the first place. He wants to return to Colombia, buy another consignment of marijuana, sail it to Canada and - the important bit - not get arrested this time. He wants to undo, remake, relive. He also wants to return to Jennifer, the woman he loves.
As the story unfolds, Slaney achieves some of this, but not all. With his mother's old blue suitcase in hand he travels first from east to west - in Vancouver he hooks up with childhood friend and former partner in crime Brian Hearn, who jumped bail and was never caught - and then north to south on a boat, in the company of Ada, a 19-year-old temptress who skims Agatha Christie novels across the water after she's finished reading them, and Carter, her lover, "a slum landlord, amateur actor, father of four, loving husband, philanderer and sailor". On Slaney's trail, meanwhile, is Patterson, a policeman.
So far, so Elmore Leonard. But Moore's interest is not in crime, or jive-talking gangsters, or how the baddies and cops are outsmarted by a guy with a cool nickname. Instead it's clear from the off that she's bolting something else onto what is an otherwise formulaic and genre-flavoured story. Something about fate and freedom and luck. About how none of those things is anything more than a will-o'-the-wisp. About how some people travel in circles while others forge straight ahead. Deep into the novel, from inside Slaney's head, comes the line that most neatly sums this up: "the best stories, he thought, we've known the end from the beginning". His will be no different.
A Newfoundlander like Slaney, Moore was Booker-nominated for her 2010 novel February and is a previous winner of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. That pedigree is apparent on every page. As Slaney lies in a ditch waiting for the police cars and dogs to pass by, for instance, Moore has him listen to lupin leaves which "chussled like the turning pages of a glossy magazine". Later, when a speedboat approaches Slaney's boat as it bobs off the Colombian coast, Moore describes it as "mirage-kinked" in the heat. Just two examples of her poet's eye: Caught is thick with others.
Having a distaff hand on the tiller navigating this sea of men makes things interesting, too. Patterson bugs Jennifer's apartment and, like the eavesdropping Stasi officer in the German film The Lives Of Others, is moved and made reflective by what he hears. It's not what you expect from a hardbitten cop, or from an author manipulating a hardbitten cop through a narrative. Other male characters are described in that quietly humane-but-forensically exacting way that is, I think, a particular strength of female writers.
One of the most vivid of these portraits is of the truck driver who gives Slaney his final ride before Vancouver. Moore describes the man's eyes in intricate detail, even the purple veins in his cheeks. And, as with the other cabs in which the hitchhiking Slaney has ridden, this one becomes like a confessional. There's no plastic Virgin on the dashboard - Moore is too canny for that - but, after a close encounter with a cop, there is stern advice. "You had my back," Slaney tells the trucker, a hopeful statement rather than a question. "Nobody has your back," the man replies. It turns out he's right.