One morning last week, Andrew F. Sullivan and I rented a car, escaped Toronto by way of the DVP and headed east on the 401. The next day, Sullivan was launching his debut novel, Waste, which is set in the fictional city of Larkhill, Ont., but is based on the very real city of Oshawa, where we were both born and raised, and which was our destination on this day.
At one point, after spending an hour driving somewhat aimlessly around the city, we wound up in Sullivan's old neighbourhood, in south Oshawa, which backs onto Townline Road and "used to be the edge" of the city, as Sullivan put it, but is now a gateway to the "new" Oshawa, a jumble of detached homes and big-box stores that sprouted in the years after I moved away. As we approached his childhood street, Southridge, the 28-year-old Sullivan pointed out various homes, remembering the families that once lived there, the children he befriended, the crazy things he witnessed – the sort of primitive mythology often projected onto adolescence.
"This is the 'Shwa. This is where I lived. This is my world."
There has never been a novel, as far as I can tell, written about Oshawa – that is if you consider the cartoonish, hallucinatory city imagined by Sullivan (Oshawa as "a fever dream" and "a nightmare," he says) – to be an accurate approximation of the real thing.
"I think we sometimes oversimplify Canada into metropolises – like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary – and then small towns," he says. "When in reality we have Windsor, London, Hamilton, Peterborough. I think it's where a lot of the people live that no one ever talks about. It's the forgotten spots."
It's an odd thing, visiting your hometown in fiction; having spent the past decade in Toronto, whose streets I navigate in books on a weekly basis, it sometimes seems, I think I was desensitized to the experience. But the first time I came across a reference to the Dynasty, the notorious motel on the side of the 401 that is now a Best Western, I had to stop reading. What was this doing here? The sensation was familiar to the one felt when I spot Toronto standing in for New York, Chicago, or another American city in the movies.
If you grow up in Toronto, or Montreal, or Vancouver, or Winnipeg, or St. John's, or countless other communities across Canada, you can find a shelf-full of books about the place where you live. But, until now, Oshawa belonged to the tier of Canadian cities without a literature of its own, without anyone telling its stories. Musicians have celebrated the city (Cuff the Duke immediately springs to mind) and Oshawa has been featured in numerous movies (the original X-Men and Billy Madison, both filmed at Parkwood Estate, for example). But in fiction? I vividly remember, 15 years ago, reading Steven Heighton's novel The Shadow Boxer and feeling a twinge of satisfaction when the Harmony Road off-ramp to the 401 was mentioned. At least it was something, an acknowledgment my city existed.
"It's a story that I didn't see told anywhere," Sullivan says of Waste. "It was like there's no Canadian books about what, for many transformative years of my life, were my people. There's no Canadian books about how wasted the parents got on rum-and-cokes at a summer birthday party in the south 'Shwa.
"If you're from [Oshawa] you could admit it's [messed up], but you do have a fondness for it," he continues. "And I don't think I could write about those kinds of characters without having some love for them. You have to have empathy."
That may pose a challenge for some readers. Waste tells the stories of two men – Jamie Garrison, struggling to raise his young daughter and come to terms with his violent past, and Moses Moon, a teenage skinhead with a mentally unstable mother, whose fates become intertwined after the car Jamie is driving hits a lion, late one night, on a desolate stretch of road.
The animal is owned by Astor Crane, a small-time criminal who employs two bearded enforcers partial to drilling holes in kneecaps. (The novel was rejected by every Canadian publisher that read it; one editor called it "an almost nihilistic book," Sullivan says, rather proudly; he eventually found a willing partner in Dzanc Books, a small Michigan press.)
Waste isn't just inspired by Oshawa, but other mid-size industrial cities, "places just big enough to get lost in," like London where Sullivan attended university. "I do think there's always a strange underbelly in any place that's not in the mainstream." It's a world Sullivan feels is overlooked in Canadian fiction, a world of shift workers and "good 'ol boys," as he lovingly calls his unlovable characters, a world filled with "abandoned people."
"There's a weird Canadian thing where literature is supposed to be hopeful, or responsible, or redemptive," he says. "I'm not interested in writing contemplative, reflective books right now. And so I want things where people can't sit at home and wonder why their daughter's not contacting them, because they have to go to work. And I think Canadian fiction can fall into that, sometimes, where our narratives are narratives of contemplation and reflection and re-examination. And even when there is action it's historical. And our violence is historical. And I think that does a disservice, because it pretends violence is a strange thing that happened a long time ago. Not here, not in Canada."
When we first arrived in Oshawa, we parked outside the public library – where Sullivan researched the novel one summer, years ago, going through old police blotters and back issues of the local paper on microfiche – and spent 45 minutes walking around the downtown core, something I hadn't done in well over a decade. There was a new provincial courthouse and a new (well, new to me) hockey arena and the old Genosha Hotel, which in Sullivan's novel is rechristened the Pillaros, looked to be in the midst of a renovation. The Oshawa of Waste doesn't exist any more, or at least not to the same extent.
"I think it's only good the way Oshawa has changed," Sullivan said as we walked past City Hall. "I think it's better for it, in the end.
"I don't want to romanticize the griminess, you know what I mean? Like there was something purer or whatever. No. There were just people who wanted to get wasted on Friday. I feel like a lot of what was there, or what's in the book, is not necessarily something I want back. But it's something I do want to remember."