I don’t entirely know what to say about this book. When I finished the last story, I felt like I needed to go out and get in a fistfight just to pay it its dues. It’s a pretty spectacular thing. All We Want Is Everything is a slim book but it is jammed with stories that drip with guts, bodily emissions, and heartache, told by narrators who long for a real connection. The writing is a clean right hook that lands with precision.
The characters do want everything, and in most pieces that means they want out – of the small towns clogged with birds that blacken the skies, off the plant floor with all of their limbs intact, out of the high-rise next to the sinkhole. They want to die a perfect coward’s death as their cars sink below the water because it’s the only way to pay off gambling debts. They work hard at dead-end jobs that damage their bodies and often their psyches. Everyone knows how to take a punch, how to stall the cops, how to drink with ease. This might be the toughest book this year in Can Lit, but it isn’t pointless or posturing machismo. I kind of want to give it a trophy and then a bowl of soup and some band-aids.
Sullivan knows how to show the reader, via specific and gory sensory detail, the reality of his characters’ situations. They are “elbow deep in dead pigeon”; young cousins overdose on chewable Flintstone vitamins at Christmas, puking “a hazy blur of purple and orange” behind the couch; their blood blisters “glow bright pink under the light”; their friends throw up fries and pick day-glo drug scabs in McDonald’s bathrooms; they choke on air “filled with feathers and feces”; dead baby birds are “pink splatters” on front windshields. The townie girls giggle while someone spits blood in a drunk’s face; they’re in towns up north where the government ships discount body bags; they’re cradling unwanted babies to sleep in snowbanks; they have brothers who aren’t quite right and leave rabbit heads in the freezer. The boys wield hammers, baseball bats and weed whackers. Their fathers are absent, broken from wars, from lack of options, or dead from liver failure, mental illness, drowning. A son spends his inheritance on “hydroponic lamps and a tattoo of his dead dog Chuckles.” The sons are raising themselves, and the girls aren’t doing much better, clutching ultrasounds of their four-armed babies, abnormalities that come from working too close to the nuclear plant.
It would be bleak if it wasn’t just life and if it didn’t have heart, if it wasn’t a deeply realistic portrait of Canada’s underclass and working class in strikingly visual and controlled prose. It’s a startling debut by one of my new favourite writers whose promise is clear and future looks bright. Write his name down because hopefully he’s going to be a big deal.
Zoe Whittall’s most recent novel is Holding Still for as Long as Possible. She is a frequent contributor to Globe Books.