December 18, 2018

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People, hope laid to waste in grim, grisly debut novel

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/3/2016 (997 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Make no mistake — this edgy, absorbing debut novel does not involve noble, middle-class characters. In fact, it’s a grisly crime saga about drug dealers, enforcers and skinhead wannabes who are engaged in illicit deeds, make ethnic slurs and commit violent acts.

Andrew F. Sullivan is a Toronto writer who grew up in Oshawa. His 2013 short-fiction collection, All We Want Is Everything, was named one of the Globe & Mail’s best books; the stories feature unsavoury male characters stuck in desperate situations.

Sullivan’s new book borrows a plot element and two briefly mentioned characters from one of his previous stories. Set in southwestern Ontario, the novel revolves around the chaotic lives of several damaged teenage boys and young men who are down on their luck.

The well-chosen title alludes to several aspects of the story — the industrial-wasteland setting, the act of murder and the misused potential of the characters.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/3/2016 (997 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Make no mistake — this edgy, absorbing debut novel does not involve noble, middle-class characters. In fact, it’s a grisly crime saga about drug dealers, enforcers and skinhead wannabes who are engaged in illicit deeds, make ethnic slurs and commit violent acts.

Andrew F. Sullivan is a Toronto writer who grew up in Oshawa. His 2013 short-fiction collection, All We Want Is Everything, was named one of the Globe & Mail’s best books; the stories feature unsavoury male characters stuck in desperate situations.

Sullivan’s new book borrows a plot element and two briefly mentioned characters from one of his previous stories. Set in southwestern Ontario, the novel revolves around the chaotic lives of several damaged teenage boys and young men who are down on their luck.

The well-chosen title alludes to several aspects of the story — the industrial-wasteland setting, the act of murder and the misused potential of the characters.

The story takes place in the fictional blue-collar town of Larkhill between 1989 and 1990, several years after its economic collapse. At the outset, co-workers Jamie and Moses finish their night shift as cleaners at a butcher shop.

Jamie offers Moses a ride, but his car hits an escaped lion on a deserted road; though they both survive, Jamie wrecks his back. Neither report the accident or tell anyone about it.

Soon afterwards two other incidents occur. The frozen, mutilated corpse of a young man is discovered in the woods; eight years earlier, Jamie and a friend had bullied him relentlessly in high school. At the same time, Moses’ cognitively impaired mother goes missing. Filled with anxiety about her welfare, he and his skinhead friends set out to find her, while Jamie seeks out contraband meds for his injury.

The plot thickens as these three seemingly unrelated events gradually intertwine, creating a suspenseful, tension-filled story.

From the opening scene, Sullivan’s sure-footed, cinematic prose propels us into the world of the story. Elements of the story are vaguely reminiscent of fiction by Flannery O’Connor and Ottessa Moshfegh.

The third-person linear narrative is structured as 30 brief chapters, with several digressions revealing the characters’ backstories.

Throughout the novel, Sullivan’s deft choice of images echoes the downtrodden state of the town as well as its atmosphere of moral ambiguity. "Moses lived down by the highway, in one of the old motels strung up like discount Christmas lights along either side of the six lanes. The kind of place where the bloodstains were bleached out of the carpet… and the toilet seats had permanent condom catchers."

To authenticate the era, Sullivan peppers the narrative with ‘80s pop-culture references such as ZZ Top, Iron Maiden, The Lorax, Bill Murray and Eagles drummer Don Henley.

Also noteworthy is the novel’s grotesque, off-kilter quality: the jack-o’-lantern smile of a character with missing front teeth from a fight; the brain injury from a flying bowling ball; the disintegrating remains of a crow circling the clogged filter of a swimming pool.

Much to his credit, Sullivan plumbs the depths of the characters, portraying them as complex, multi-layered human beings filled with contradictions. This technique forces readers to reconsider the initial impressions made by these characters before passing final judgment on them. Moses, for example, shows great patience and devotion to his childlike mother despite his volatile nature. And even in the midst of seeking revenge, Jamie worries about his bright but troubled young daughter.

As the reader turns the pages of Waste, Sullivan continually tugs at our emotions. While his outlook and subject matter may be bleak, he is an unquestionably talented writer.

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

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