In round three of NL Reads 2013, the panelists were allowed to discuss anything but Newfoundland and Labrador. The question: Excluding any talk of Newfoundland or Labrador, what makes this a great book? Dave Sullivan’s answer is simple: West Moon is not only drama, it is poetry of the understated and the honest. Michelle Butler Hallett hauls in a bunch of examples to make her point, that it’s the way the book is written, the attention to craft that makes Straight Razor Days a great book. Roger Maunder shows that Inside is about a man crawling back to life in a story about escape, freedom and transformation, a story that can relate to us all on many levels. Angela, letting the book speak for itself, speaks of our need for love and the nature of dreams. Last but not least, Jerry Stamp lists all the great things about the book, and the list is long.
Dave Sullivan on West Moon: The poetry. The simplistic beauty of the understated. A narrative that is reminiscent of the works of an outport Dylan Thomas. Above all though, the honesty of the book is what makes it. The storekeeper who lives amongst the other dead citizens of St. Kyran’s ponders what he misses most about being alive. He considers for a second and then replies “the smell of fresh dustbane.” Not flowers, not his dog, but the chemical smell that greeted him at his shop every single day. There is a beauty in that line far beyond anything that can be gained from forced flowery poetics.
MBH on Straight Razor Days: The craft. What all else this book might or might not be, it is beautifully structured – despite the narrator’s assertion in ‘Dream of His Old Ford Custom’ that literary structure is something that scrambles his brain. I’ve already discussed questions of form and voice. Beneath the stories in each piece is an emerging larger narrative. Roughly: a quest. Most stories are a quest, and Straight Razor Days, seen as a whole, is a story made up of smaller stories, one quest – one day – at a time.
Look at the section titles. These titles work as beacons, of course, but while supposedly guiding the reader, their diction also unsettles. First, we have to take ‘Exit 31’ – to where? And where’s the light, the map? (It’s the highway exit to Scilly Cove.) Then we must face ‘Book Burnings’, that section title evoking fear and disgust – and, let’s be honest, voyeurism: what’s he talking about, burning books; what’s he burning? Then it’s ‘The Very Back Room’, an image which threatens secrets, and perhaps truth – things you may find at the end of a quest.
If we consider this book a body, these sections are tattooed limbs. The pieces within each section are self-contained. You can excise them from the book, and each piece will stand on its own, as a story. The opening piece, ‘The Day on Paper’, sets up image patterns which will recur, build in relevance and reinforce themes: the son, the motorcycle, the house in Scilly Cove, the women, the truck, the father, the money, and the ‘cock to rival a French baguette’. These beacons of masculinity, here comical, come back like savage angry ghosts hauling truth like it’s a weapon. Just one example: the narrator’s father appears in ‘I Never Dream of My Father’ (24), ‘Dream of His Old Ford Custom’, ‘Old Skully’, ‘Bottom Drawer’, ‘Make Your Peace’, and ‘Pay Off’. These pieces weave an entire narrative on their own. Then consider what pieces are placed near these, where the father appears and the resulting counterpoint. ‘Pay Off’, for example, with its more plausible echoes of ‘The Day on Paper’, comes after ‘Safe Place’, where the narrator’s reduced to childishness: ‘I started to bawl, for myself most likely, /or maybe so she might hear/ and come mothering down the hall.’ Whenever the narrator’s father appears, directly or named, a neighbouring piece picks up themes and questions of what it means to be both a father and a son.
The image pattern that haunts me most is Frank’s bedroom. Frank is dead, and he once owned the house in Scilly Cove, where ‘Safe Place’ is set, among other pieces.
Consider the relationship between the piece ‘Frank’s Old Bedroom’ in ‘Book Burnings’ and the piece that closes the book in ‘The Very Back Room’, ‘Way Off Broadway’. In ‘Frank’s Old Bedroom’, we’ve got at least two ghosts haunting the narrator: the absence of his son, and perhaps dead Frank himself:
I call out to the boy.
It takes a minute to remember
I’m alone in the house,
alone with someone else’s years.
I snarl at the darkness –
Well, come slit my throat.
Flip the feather pillow
for the cool, fictitious comfort,
appraise each breath, give a nod
to the Big Guy, up there,
but can’t find my way back down.
Easy comforts are ‘fictitious’, and ghosts and absences, in the end, are not the main worry, because ‘Now I gotta think for myself.’
In ‘Safe Place’, it comes out the narrator’s son sleeps in Frank’s bedroom. So does something else:
In Frank’s old bedroom I was greeted
by the comatose face of an age-shattered man
in the bed my boy sleeps in. …
It was not Frank I saw.
The darker thought that came to mind
was that it was the boy, years from now,
failed by me, abandoned
by what should have been.
The third more sobering thought – a rendering
of my own self in the not so distant future,
forsaken to my own strangeness,
unhealed and too far gone.
The images of manhood are coming together as the narrator tries to figure out who the ghost of the old man is, and as he stares down the horrifying possibility that the reason, the destination for these stories and suffering could very well be insensate wreckage.
In ‘Way Off Broadway’, the narrator’s missing his absent son again, quickly imagining horrors that would make that absence permanent:
In my more stranded moments
I picture him dashing out,
yellow cabs a rabid pack.
Or turning a busy corner
with trench-coated strangers,
never to be seen again.
He quickly recognizes these horrors, while vivid and almost palpable, probably won’t occur:
More likely he’s clinging to his mama’s coattail,
munching on a famous hot dog.
Every fuckin thing is famous there …
Still, after all this travelling, the narrator remains unsettled, and he still measures himself against expectation, once more examining the tension between the man he is and the man he thinks he should be. He postures again, pretends he’s doing just fine on his own, then underhandedly admits he’s not:
Fresh pencil, notebook, tea in the pot.
All the fixings if I was so inclined.
I dont miss the dog.
I dont miss the woman.
His safe place, his house in Scilly Cove, with its ‘greasy kerosene glow’, is not perfect. Easy answers, triumphs, comforts and grails are not waiting for him. The fruit imagery counterpoints the title of ‘One Conscious Child’:
Outside, scrape some horse shit from my heel
and I’m briefly struck dumb by my own irrelevance.
The dogberry sludge, one shrivelled apple
clinging to the leeside tree,
the harbour swell, dishcloth on the line, the wood
the oil drum. I dont miss the woman.
I dont miss the dog.
So, after all these stories, after all the study of the pieces and the whole they may make, what has changed? What is the comfort? Again, Hynes is blindingly honest: he has no easy answer. Here, he does not swing a shovel, or boast, or kick, or curse, or yell. He whispers.
Back inside, I cram a grimy towel
in the gap beneath the porch door. Heave another junk
into the stove. Choke out the candles in the very
Dash into the boy’s room and out again.
Whisper something foolish in the horrible dark.
Roger Maunder on Inside: This is a fantastic book on many levels. From the believable main storyline of someone being accused of something they may not have committed as they try to overcome their own battles, to the sad but uplifting underlying story, where the main character is rooted in a way of life and how he has to climb out of this hole to get to the top of a grimy heap.
We witness a man begin a new journey; where everything should be better but nothing is, people that surround him haven’t changed, just older. He has to escape the clutches of all those wanting a piece of him but this time for all the wrong reasons. It’s a spotlight highlighted by the media that he wants no part of.
This book takes you from the moment the main character is found out to be NOT guilty, his struggle to try to claw back into a world that he’s been restricted from for 14 long years.
14 years? A lot has happened in this world in 14 years. Cell phones. Music, TV, people. There’s a lot to become accustomed too. People change…for the good. Myrden changed…for the good. INSIDE is full of hope but it’s also stacked with hopelessness. It gives you a glimpse into a different world. You root for the good guy but is he really the good guy? He’s been done wrong so you feel for him.
He believes the money that he will receive may help him escape his old troubles but it has a way from bringing an entourage of difficulty with it. It helps him hide and escape for a time but it can’t make him happy. The characters are so real that you will relate to them in small subtleties.
The style of writing was a challenge at first. It took a few pages to get used to this staccato rhythm of words but it works and brought me into this character’s world. It made me understand his thought process and how his mind worked. It became poetic in a way. Simplistic, easy sentences that made me wonder if there was anything beyond this simple world of good and bad. It’s so much bigger in the scheme of things. Telling such a massive, intriguing, complex story that is threaded through these easy simple sentences is pure brilliant.
Inside grips you from the very first sentence.
Angela Antle on Annabel: As well as being an exploration of identity and sexuality, Annabel is a story about how important it is to love people for exactly who they are and how important it is to nurture each others’ dreams.
Jerry Stamp on Galore: Galore has everything. Drama, action, humour, suspense, intrigue, a whale, romance, jealousy, elements of the supernatural, a whale again, espionage, war, etc. It’s like Crummey set out to write a book that would genuinely have something for everyone. From the first page he creates this community and tells the stories of it as if you were there. The narrative jumps around a bit, sometimes mid story, as if you were being told a story by someone you met and they themselves are trying to slip in backstory for context or are so excited to tell you another piece of info that they go on a brief tangent only to return to the original story. It flows in an interesting way. He races through stories sometimes so that you don’t even realize you have been reading two or three at the same time until later. And then he can throw you for a loop and create a bit of mystery to keep you guessing.
More on the panelists:
Dave Sullivan is a writer/actor from St. John’s. A graduate of Grenfell Campus, Memorial University’s Theatre Program, Sullivan has performed on stages throughout the island, country and internationally.
Michelle Butler Hallett’s no holds barred attitude toward writing has made her one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most prolific writers having published four novels in just six years. Buy her books at your local bookstore, Amazon, Chapters, or directly from the publisher, visit her blog and find her on Facebook.
Roger Maunder is a writer, actor, director, and filmmaker living in St. John’s. Learn more about Roger by visiting his website. Buy his novel Mundy Pond at your local bookstore, or from Amazon or Chapters.
Angela is an independent TV and transmedia producer living in St. John’s. She schemes with artists of all sizes and shapes, still buys books and co-chairs the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival – now in it’s 24th year!
Jerry Stamp is an award-winning, impressively tireless musician who’s played with some of Canada’s finest. Buy his music here, and look for him on Twitter, Facebook, and Soundcloud.
Learn more about CBC’s Canada Reads coming up in February!