A Voluntary Crucifixion – Patrick Shannon in the Dalhousie Review of Books

“This unusual memoir, David MacKinnon’s first work of non-fiction but fourth published book, spans four decades of the author’s life and recounts experiences that could each be the subject of book-length, first-person remembrances, if not dispatches from Home Box Office. These include (among others) his representing a Montreal law firm charged with litigating asbestos indictments of the Quebec government, the story of a New York firefighter friend who lost his life to the cancerous effluvium of 9/11, the story of an AIDS patient disparaged for faking his sickness, the experience of being chased through the British Columbia countryside by a madman, and accounts of trips to the Outer Hebrides and Nova Scotia to investigate his patrimony. 

What differentiates this memoir from outright history is his own involvement, which treads very close to the unbelievable. Part travelogue, part commedia dell’arte, part confession, this memoir summons the reader to reflect on what it means to live completely as an adult, both in thought and deed. In a word, the unique theatricality of his life – his travels, his risk-taking, his volatile alliances – is guaranteed to make one’s own seem comparatively timid. One wonders (or I did) whether one has shirked the challenges, personal and civic, of a responsible adulthood. Even without this secondary impact, however, the book is extraordinary. When it is not a call to action, it teems with so many clear-eyed, rude, and perspicacious observations that it recalls Swift’s admonition that we will know a genius among us by this sign: that all the dunces are in confederacy against him.

The book’s subject matter is so broad that it is almost impossible to summarize. Perhaps its strongest chapters, so implausible as to leave this reader gape-mouthed, recount MacKinnon’s organization of the “The Long March to Rome” in 2016, an effort on the part of the world’s Indigenous communities to convince the Vatican to renounce the so-called Doctrine of Discovery. Got that? The reader is at one point invited into a hotel lobby in Florence, where the author and an angry fist of Native activists dispute how to countenance Archbishop Tomasi’s welcoming prayer – an insult – with a secular hymn of their own invention. As elsewhere in the narrative, MacKinnon depicts this scene with a leavening humour: “The chant of the Yakama, a bell-ringing cacaphony of shouts, threats, and grimaces would be the delegation’s response to Tomasi’s prayer.”

The book turns more didactic after Rome, and here one reads an impressive precis of two enormous issues affecting current Canadian politics: the Residential School horror and the problem of missing Aboriginal women. The author, who holds an advanced degree from the Sorbonne and belongs to two law societies, conveys what prideful Canadians might see as apostasy: he ridicules our national character. He rightly points out (as did Mordecai Richler and Stephen Leacock) that we dearly want to count ourselves superior to our American cousins but choose to do so through virtue-signalling; in other words, we’re humblebraggers. This section is rich with allusions, as one reads about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, biding property law decisions in the United States, and ongoing efforts to right (or say we’ve righted) historical wrongs. For Canadians feeling even mild contempt for the current state of leadership north of the 49th parallel, the narrative is both hilarious and scathing. 

The tone of the memoir may remind some readers of Travels with Charley (1962), Steinbeck’s 1960 road trip across America, and I mean this as the highest compliment. Like Steinbeck, David embraces what he calls “precarity” without fear, entrusting random strangers, or Fortuna, to guide his way to personal salvation. That is, though the memoir’s anecdotes are often scabrous, they also convey a touching faith in human possibility.

One might ask why a man who was born into relative privilege and could have enriched himself in so many fields would choose to live like this—a sort of Canadian Blaise Cendrars. I myself completed this excellent book with only half an answer, but MacKinnon leaves us one or two hints. As he walks away from a cave on the Isle of Mull, for instance, well before he has married and enjoyed the blessing of children, he explains that he seems to have been burdened (or blessed) with a genetic disposition to explore and champion difficult causes, “making a virtue of being brave and then forgotten.” He continues: “I’ve thought about our motto since: Audentus Fortuna Juvat [sic]. From Culloden to Bannockburn to the great wars … show me the road to battle and I’ll reach for my halbard and broadsword, no problem. The problem for a MacKinnon doesn’t lie there in the least. It’s peacetime that irks us, and irritates, and makes us reach for the whisky.”