Robert Kroetsch's Alibi

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Calgary's Mount Royal, in the early 20th century (Photo: Peel Library, University of Alberta)

Calgary's Mount Royal, in the early 20th century (Photo: Peel Library, University of Alberta)

William William Dorfen travels the world looking for artefacts for his oilman boss, a man with a “barbarian fortune.” Jack Deemer is “the richest of the many rich men spawned in the Alberta oil patch, like so many hatched salamanders.” A recluse, he hides in his mansion on Mount Royal’s Prospect Avenue behind a “guardian row of spruce.” Like Eric Harvie, the renowned Calgary collector Kroetsch used as inspiration, Deemer stores his collections in warehouses around the city, one “in each of the four quadrants of that mathematical city.” His agent Dorf imagines the wealthy oilman prowling his warehouses while the city sleeps, poking through crates and cases. “Perhaps he is appalled, each night, by what he hasn’t got, by all that has escaped him, a calving iceberg, an eclipse of the sun, a single pained or singing or loving voice from the Middle Ages.” Near the end of the novel, Dorf returns to his Calgary apartment to continue his quest on Deemer’s behalf.

 

I got up early in the morning when the city too was asleep. When the city was, in its ritual way, dead. The sun comes up early and strong on the horizon; the sleepers of the city writhe in their sweaty beds, grope, one last time, or reach, or recoil. And I was their watcher. That booming city, in the quiet of the first-dawn light, that sunburnt city has its nightmares too.

 

Robert Kroetsch, Alibi (Stoddart, 1983)


Robert Kroetsch's Alberta

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Husky Tower under construction, 1968 (Photo: Calgary Tower website)

Husky Tower under construction, 1968 (Photo: Calgary Tower website)

“What does it look like to you?”

“What’s it really for?”

“What does it make you think of?”

It's 1968 and the brand new Husky Tower rises twice as high as the city’s tallest building. To celebrate Canada's centennial, Marathon Realty and Husky Oil have commissioned a concrete and steel observation tower that transforms the city's skyline. Author Robert Kroetsch, then a university professor in upstate New York, has returned to Alberta to write a centennial travelogue about his native province. In Calgary, he contemplates the tower.

They gather at its base and tilt their heads up and back, their mouths opening, their gaze following the slender bone-white curve to where its high point swells against the sky. They watch it from old verandas and new patios, and from the balconies of glittering high-rise apartments. They see it from far out on the prairie and marvel at what they behold.

Calgarians have invented for themselves a new Rorschach test. It is no ink spot on a folded page, but a smooth tower of concrete with a revolving restaurant on top.

To a child, it is a turret that makes his home a castle. To a preacher outside the gate of the Calgary zoo, it is a beacon that draws the innocent to this new Babylon. To a young man who soars six hundred feet above his high city to be served and pampered, it is proof to his date that he deserves her pampering too. To a student at the university, it is an embarrassing symbol of his city’s materialism and raw taste. To the oilmen, it is higher than the Rockies on the horizon far to the west; it is the axle-tree of God’s universe, and they, by God, built it.

And as the sun sets on the chatter and speculation, the Husky Tower burns splendid and tall in the warm soft night, in the caressing Chinooks that blow down over the Rockies. This is the city’s long, hard, and enduring dream.

 

Robert Kroetsch, Alberta (NeWest Press, 1993, 2nd edition)