Eden Robinson's first book, the 1996 short-story collection Traplines, is the CanLit equivalent of a beloved punk band's untouchable debut. It also demonstrated that Robinson loves a good mess. The book is a ragged, relentlessly dark minor classic full of bored First Nations kids whose lives are marked by fights, bad sex and untrustworthy relatives. Her first two novels, Monkey Beach, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2000, and 2006's brutal Blood Sports, share DNA and characters with some of the stories in Traplines. They established her not only as one of Canada's pre-eminent indigenous writers – Robinson is a member of British Columbia's Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations – but as one who takes an inordinate amount of glee in cramming together traditional narratives with contemporary tales of violence and survival.
Son of a Trickster – despite being the first of Robinson's novels to have no overt narrative connections to her 20-year-old debut, and despite coming more than 10 years after Blood Sports – drops us right away into the familiar Robinsonian territory of matter-of-fact violence and familial dysfunction. Near the beginning of the book, a small-time drug dealer sics a pair of weaponized pit bulls on the teenage protagonist, Jared – payback for debts left behind by Jared's mom's AWOL boyfriend. Just as one of the dogs closes in on the boy, Jared's mother appears out of nowhere to ram it with her pickup truck. As the wounded beast lies dying on the pavement, his mother calmly and carefully drives over it again. "Kindly leave my boy alone," she tells the dealer.
Here's the truly messy part: Even as Jared is standing there, dripping with canine gore, his mother tells him that very same drug dealer, named Richie, might be someone they ought to befriend. A page later, Richie moves in, and the surviving pit bull becomes Jared's closest companion. At this point, we are barely 20 pages in.
True to form, Robinson frames all this not as the stuff of a nightmarish thriller but as a black comedy about the irredeemably messed-up life of a teenager in small-town British Columbia. Jared lives in the basement of his mom's house and gets by selling drugs to other kids at school. His parents are divorced (far from amicably; he has to hide the fact that he visits and financially supports his dad) and his mother's love life is a constant source of stress. Before Richie, and before the guy who left behind dog-attack-worthy debts, there was David, who seemed decent enough, if a little uptight – right up until the moment he tried to break Jared's ribs, forcing his mother to nail gun her lover's feet and arms to the floor. (Robinson is the rare Canadian author who can write about moments of extreme physical brutality without overly sensationalizing or aestheticizing them; in her books, hurting is just something certain people do to each other.)
Another source of stress is the frequent incursion of the supernatural into Jared's otherwise firmly earthbound life. He keeps encountering a chatty raven, who later claims to be his real father, and an old woman who appears to have a creature moving beneath her skin. When Jared starts seeing animal spirits and weird ape-men everywhere, his mother finally tells him that his father was indeed a trickster named Wee'git. Not that it helps much, since Jared, a "random town Native" in his own words, appears to have inherited zero magical powers. (Son of a Trickster is the first in a planned trilogy, so those may show up in later.)
The revelation of Jared's true parentage, though it is teased on the very first page and in its title, is a long time coming. Most of the novel is consumed with Jared's dismal daily existence and domestic problems. He does a lot of drugs, drinks a lot of beer and gets hurt a lot. Things improve when a slightly flaky, politically active young woman moves in across the street and the two of them start sleeping together, but she's messed up, too, so even that goes sour eventually.
As good as Robinson is at rendering scenes from the life of committed dirtbags, she has always struggled to build a solid enough novelistic structure to house them all. Son of a Trickster drifts for so long that its third-act shift toward the supernatural – though effectively strange and sticky – has the effect of making everything that came before seem like mere prologue. Sex and cursing aside, the book also has the feel of a young adult novel in its emotional outlook and dialogue, and in the tenor of its plot.
If Son of a Trickster as a whole doesn't quite work, it's still filled with the kinds of things Robinson does well. She revels in the dynamics of families that fracture but never quite fly apart. And her depictions of the complex interplay between First Nations peoples of varying levels of wokeness and cultural immersion are undeniably funny and subtle. Not all of the messes in Son of a Trickster are there by design, but the ones that are show Eden Robinson at her untidy best.
Nathan Whitlock is the author of the novel Congratulations on Everything.