Friday, April 25, 2014

The Dirt Chronicles by Kristyn Dunnion

This is perhaps the roughest look at Toronto yet. This novel is the story/stories of a collection of queer street kids, who steal, dumpster, and hustle to stay alive. They are very real people - you likely knew someone, in your youth, like one of these characters. They're like if the characters in Holding Still were a shade younger and a lot more fucked up.

At first I thought the book was a collection of similarly themed short stories, but then characters and situations started to become interwoven, and it is one coherent story. I'm not sure if it can be classified as a novel, as the point of view not only shifts, but so does the focal point of the narration. At first it was a book about queer awakening, with a little touch of street life. But it gradually shifts to be much more about making it on the streets.

The general story is of a few days in the lives of a group of queer street punks, culminating in a big birthday party that Oreo throws for her girlfriend, Ferret, in an abandoned factory where some of the kids have set up a sort of collective home. The party is busted by the cops, in particular a very nasty copped nicknamed "The King" by the kids - a cop who preys on street kids, rapes them and then trafficks them. One of the kids is shot and killed at the party, and the King is trying to pin it on one of the other kids, but he wants Ferret as a witness. 

I sort of glossed over the events leading up to the party but they are where the real meat of the story is. Many of them involve the gradual blossoming of sexuality and/or gender identity, treated alternately with humour and brutality by the author. Toronto is sort of more of a character than a setting in the book; it lurks as a pleasant, far-off dream at first, and then gradually becomes a hot smelly nightmare for the characters. In one of the early stories, two of the characters yearn to go to the city; in the last story, two others have left it for good. I can't really explain how satisfying this is without spoiling the plot. 

This book made me depressed and angry, but it was good. Really good. The author, a self-identified punk herself, knows these characters inside and out and is so good and so subtle in how she draws them. I feel like it's the kind of book that I would have to re-read, and keep finding more in it each time, but I'm not sure how much emotional energy I would have for such a task. Really, this is not a feel good novel. It will kick you in the gut. But it is really awesome and you should read it.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Doctor Bloom's Story by Don Coles

This book is the story of a doctor who wants to become a writer. Already my guard is up, because books about writers are often irredeemably self-referential. I know they say "write what you know" but that doesn't have to be taken so literally. Pick up any Stephen King novel and chances are it will feature a middle-aged male writer living in New England. Luckily for his readers he throws in a lot of truly disturbing shit to keep it interesting.

The readers of Doctor Bloom are not so lucky. The story centres around a writing workshop that the doctor attends each week, led by Larry, a course, acerbic novelist who is also the doctor's neighbour. Bloom starts seeing Larry's ex-wife, and the three of them grow exceedingly concerned about, and involved in, the life of one of the other writing workshop students, a woman named Sophie, whom they suspect of being in an abusive relationship.

There is potential in the story. Larry and Marianne (the ex-wife) are interesting and well-drawn characters and probably the only compelling points of the story centre on one or the other. Doctor Bloom is awful; I'm not sure if it's because the author has put too much of himself in this character, or if he's trying for someone a little winking-ly pompous but went too far, but regardless, I found his narration almost unbearable. Sophie, too, is not interesting at all as a character. I think it's a cop out to describe a character as having a certain special something that draws people in, and that's essentially what has been done here. As a reader I didn't much care about her at all; certainly I thought her husband was an asshole and certainly I wanted her out of the abusive relationship, but mostly I wanted to actually give a damn about what her whole thing was.

The problem is that the characters in this book spend all their time sitting around talking about a really brutal situation, using literary references to construct theories and engage in clever repartee, which on its own would just be boring, but the fact that the situation they are talking about is a woman getting routinely beaten makes them all seem like absolute assholes.

This book was harder for me to get through than your average book dealing with upsetting subjects like violence against women because in this book everybody knows, and nobody does a god damn thing, and we're still supposed to like these characters. At least I think we are. That was the other problem; I didn't really know what the book was trying to tell me. I wish the author had cut about 50 pages of Dr. Bloom's rambling literary analysis and actually had things happen.

I think it's clear I disliked the book. I liked Toronto in it, there are some great descriptions of jogs in the Don Valley, and the university and Dr. Bloom's neighbourhood are both compellingly detailed. That was the high point for me, however. I can't recommend this book.

Two CN Towers out of five: