Larkhill, Ont., is a sort of unpromised land and missing teeth are its shibboleth. The fictional town at the centre of Waste – Andrew F. Sullivan's brutal, mesmeric first novel – is filled with boots, bowling balls, 40-ounce bottles, pliers and dashboards and enough cruel and negligent people to wield them in all directions. So when one of Sullivan's leads, the aching butcher Jamie Garrison, responds to skepticism about forensic dentistry by saying, "Teeth. Yeah. Everyone has them, 'cept maybe a few pill freaks down at the Greyhound," it plays as a joke, but a joke on the character's lack of empathy and situational awareness.
We can forgive Jamie for the mistake (maybe not much else). We know he has other things on his mind. Sullivan's signature technique is an expert interweaving of dialogue with a simultaneous remembering, letting us see precisely what else is on a character's mind at that moment. In less assured hands, diachronic narration can be used to clumsily explain unintuitive decisions. But in Waste it's an essential texture, showing us the ever-widening ripples of pain that circumscribe each character.
Waste has the elements of a classic noir – a missing mother, a mysterious lion, drug rackets and revenge and murder – but Sullivan is too curious to perform the typical acts of misdirection. Instead, he is continually shifting focus, giving us the story from every perspective. Minor names pass by only to pop into the centre 50 pages later. As a result, many chapters read like short stories, and Sullivan uses these movements to showcase his tonal range. The devastating best example is when Sullivan intercuts a violent confrontation with the künstlerroman of a blood clot, as it travels to a woman's brain.
There was an early glimpse of this story in Sullivan's debut short-story collection, All We Want Is Everything – "Simcoe Furriers" takes place over the same weekend – but this greyscale depth shows that Sullivan belongs in the novel. Larkhill is a reimagining of his hometown, Oshawa, and its bowling alleys and cul-de-sacs produce an excitement I've not felt since reading The Deptford Trilogy for the first time. I have wondered about Robertson Davies's ebbing from the cultural conversation – if the betrayals and infidelities that produce his narrative momentum depended on a (specious, outdated) belief that his white, nth-generation Canadians were a predominantly good group of people – and part of what makes Waste essential is a lack of that pretense. It is the gallows scene from The Manticore as a place, instead of as punctuation. Larkhill's vertiginous degree of detail tastes more ferrous than rich.
I should say I'm predisposed to any fictional treatment of Ontario's once-motor city. My grandfather still lives in Oshawa and on most childhood Sundays I was driven past the eerie façade of "A Cloverleaf Motel" on the way to the 401, its superfluous article feeling as though the building itself was giving cops the runaround. But Sullivan deftly uses the near-past – the novel takes place in 1989, just before the recession hit, and during the hangover after the Canadian Auto Workers union's triumphant Final Offer – to craft something darker and stranger. Something necessary.
Jacques Rancière, France's most exciting contemporary philosopher, believes literature has played an essential role in enhancing our understanding of the human mind. In particular, fiction has helped psychologists to uncover "a certain existential savagery of thought, a definition of knowing not as the subjective act of grasping an objective reality but as the affection, passion, or even sickness of a living being." Rancière would see Sullivan as an expert diagnostician, both in the complexity of reactive violence he portrays and in his astonishing refusal of figurative language, pointing out the latent violence in how we describe even the most minor inconveniences. Characters do not "lose their heads," they lose their heads. Getting down to an annoying task isn't "like pulling teeth" after teeth have been pulled.
Some readers will be put off by Sullivan's cast of characters, especially by the teen neo-Nazis. The genteel world of Canadian literary fiction tends to avoid these figures, or peers at them through a dystopian veil – think Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale or Timothy Findley's Headhunter. Refusing to write about our bigots seems like announcing a national character through incantation instead of self-examination. But I suspect most people know one or two hard-workin' Canucks who hold these repellent views, and Sullivan's fearless trip into their heads feels overdue.
We had a few at my high school – a diverse, public Toronto school. At one point, there was a rash of Sharpie swastikas on our walls and tables, though fortunately, the graffitist was quickly caught. He had been drawing the heinous symbol on his desks, so by tracking who sat where in which period, our security guards easily narrowed their list of suspects. At the time, there was something funny and almost reassuring about this conduit of hatred hoisting himself on such a facile petard. But after reading Waste, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the other things he might've done, and who has had to feel them. He was suspended, but he wasn't expelled.
David B. Hobbs is a Canadian writer and academic.