IT'S NOT EASY to warm up to Reed Kitchen. The man is a talker, a tongue-wagging wing-nut, and his reputation precedes him. Others try to ignore Reed Kitchen, to stifle him, to gag him, but his words prevail. A reader's first reaction to Trevor Ferguson's The Fire Line (Harper Collins, 245 pages, $25 cloth) might be to quietly close the covers on its prattling railroad man, but the curious will stay on to hear out his hyperinflated tale.
"Born between the steel rails," Reed Kitchen has jabbered and worked his way to the end of the line -- a bridge- repair job near Prince Rupert, British Columbia -- in search of "a confederate listener." Part seer, part naif, Kitchen encounters a wilderness of betrayal and violence. The world, seen through the mouth of Reed Kitchen, is an unsettling place.
Ferguson's fifth novel is by turns startling, numbing, sharp, and sodden. Its coastal landscape is alternately rain- soaked and fire-razed, and its characters are similarly capable of extreme shifts. Written without quotation marks, the book's highly embellished and often lyrical speech and exposition stream together. Ibis allegoric and apocalyptic novel leads us to the end of the line, where Ferguson dangles one final, surprising loop.