My rating: 4/5 stars
Spat Ryan has demons. They haunt him by day and share his drink at night. Raised in Montreal by a bagman for the Irish mob, Spat has fictionalized or ignored chunks of his life too painful to recall. A chance meeting with an old friend of his father’s in a bar exposes the dark secret they’ve both been harboring, the secret that has shaped and defined Spat’s tumultuous life. Newly divorced and out of control, his decision to tell all and release himself from the past unleashes a storm of change in both his internal and external life.
I usually put my disclaimers at the end of a review, but this is a special case. I did not receive a review copy of this book, and I’ve never met the author, but he is known to me for two important reasons. First, his brother married my mom’s sister. If “uncle-in-law” was a thing, he would be mine. Second, he is THE BIBLE PIMP:
The Bible Pimp was one of my favourite episodes of Trailer Park Boys, even before I knew about the family connection. It’s a hilarious episode, but it’s a little different because Ricky and Julian win. They expose The Bible Pimp as a scam artist, and get to watch someone else get hauled off to jail for once. Julian was in love with the Bible Pimp’s accomplice, though, and as she’s taken away, she sneers at him, “Fuck you, you greasy trailer park boy.” His face falls, and it’s one of the sadder moments of the show. For just a moment, all the Freedom 35 stuff falls away. He knows he’ll never be anything but a trailer park boy. I think it’s significant that it’s one of the only (maybe THE only) times the phrase “trailer park boy” appears in the series.
Sorry to those who didn’t come here for in-depth analysis of Trailer Park Boys. I’m going somewhere with this. The theme of escaping the past, and of become something else, or something more, than you were born into, is part of Spat’s story.
Spat doesn’t grow up in a trailer park, but he has a rough go, abandoned by his mother at a young age and left to be raised by his father, a small time gangster who teaches Spat “to box, to cook a roast, to hot wire a care, to stare down a dog.” His father dies in a medical screw up that leaves Spat just enough settlement money to wallow in drink, drugs, and squalor in his middle age, but we learn very quickly that it’s all an attempt to numb memories, or one certain memory, that has something to do with his mother’s leaving.
There are a bunch of things that happen to wake Spat out of his drug-induced haze. His ex-wife announces she’s pregnant with (maybe) his child. He finds out that his uncle has been in contact with his mother this whole time and she’s in Australia. He meets an old friend of his father’s in a bar who knows something. The reader hardly needs a literal or symbolic smack upside the head to announce we were about to go on an excellent adventure of some kind, with all roads leading to mom, but we get one. Spat is sitting at home when something flies through his window and lodges itself right in his forehead. For some reason this reminds me of Heathcliff banging his head against that tree till he bleeds. Something real primal.
For a story with so many archetypal elements: a journey, a difficult relationship with a mother, questionable paternity, hope springing from the promise of new life (aka an unplanned pregnancy,) it feels so different from the novels I usually read. Spat drew me in right away. On one hand, he’s a guy having a midlife crisis, a 40 year old acting like a teenager, which has a lot of eye-roll potential. The key is that there really is something different about Spat.
I had a friend with a hook for a hand, who told me, Spat, you’re a slightly more iconoclastic version of Satan. But I’m real, I told him. And that bitch was just made up to scare idiots.
I was sometimes confused and sometimes horrified by how much I sympathised with Spat. In a book like Blind Spot, the main character was repellent despite not doing anything horrible, while Spat actually does a whole bunch of pretty horrible things, but I want him to stick with it, see this thing through, find out the truth and set himself free. This is a man who cheats on his wife during their honeymoon with an underage prostitute, and misses the birth of child (well, questionable, but still) because he’s fingering a strange girl in a bar. I’m going to quote the author, from an email in which I expressed this horror and confusion, because he explains Spat’s appeal better than I could have done:
Here’s the thing about Spat: he doesn’t hate anybody. For all of his bluster, for all of the venom he spits, he isn’t motivated by hatred. And while he’s angry, his anger is unfocused and mostly internalized. He is a white, heterosexual man who is not at all racist, homophobic or sexist. People would assume, at first glance, that he would be all of those things. At heart, though, Spat is all heart. That’s why he needs so much armour. Also, he is one of those people who sees nothing but naked emperors everywhere he looks. I think we respond to that because its most people’s secret self. Spat can’t play along with anything.
While this rang very true, I think a large part of the appeal is just the way the book is written. It’s relentless in it’s confessional nature and full of hilarious one-liners and stomach-churning bursts of violence, often on the same page. You can’t help wanting more. As a comparison, Irvine Welsh’s Glue comes to mind, for the graphic nature and the rawness and energy.
After all this depravity, and there’s plenty more I’m not getting into, the story ends on such a hopeful note and manages not to feel manipulative or sappy. Kind of like the Trailer Park Boys Christmas Special, when Ricky learns the true meaning of Christmas (getting drunk and high with your friends and family,) it makes sense. Spat’s not going to outrun his past and Ricky will always be a greasy trailer park boy, but it’s all going to be okay.
An Interview with Ed Mcdonald
A little more about Ed: he was born and raised on Cape Breton Island. He has three Gemini Awards for his work in television – none for playing The Bible Pimp, as far as I know. He has written for The John Dore Television Show and various CBC programs (anyone remember Matching, Hatching & Dispatching?) He has a new novel out now, Atomic Storybook. It’s on my TBR. Check out the trailer.
1. How did Alistair McLeod come to blurb your book? Did you know him?
I was at the Playwright’s colony in Banff, many years ago, workshopping a play. Alistair was there teaching the novelist’s colony. He and I would walk into town together and smoke cigarettes. Then we’d turn around and come back. We barely said three words on those walks, but there was nothing uncomfortable about the silence. He was an extremely gracious man with a great sense of humour. He carried his genius so humbly, you could forget that he had written The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. When Spat was coming out, my publisher wanted a blurb from someone big, of course. I wasn’t sure if Alistair would remember me, but he gave us five different blurbs! Each was so profoundly flattering, I couldn’t stop giggling like an idiot. He was generous, that’s for sure.
2. Confession: I always expect maritime authors to write about the maritimes and was really surprised to find your book was set in Montreal. Have you/will you write about Cape Breton?
I was living in Montreal when I wrote Spat. The city was very much a part of it from the beginning. It’s a bubble within the bubble that is Quebec. I miss Cape Breton constantly. I have an idea for a novel, but I’ve never started it. Not sure if or when another book will happen, but if it does, it will probably be that one. It takes place over a hundred years, so there’s lots of research involved. I’d like to write it, but stupid reality keeps intruding. I have a pesky eating habit to support.
3. The synopsis calls this a “hero’s journey to the underworld and back.” I’m terrible at finding connections to mythology and classics; did you have a particular hero’s journey in mind? I always assume The Odyssey.
I didn’t write that synopsis, so it’s hard to say which hero and which journey. I think Orpheus went into the underworld to get his wife back form somebody. Also, I think Hercules did it, but he was probably just being a jock. I had no such myth in mind when Spat was happening. The “underworld” though, is where Spat lives, where millions of people are living. Addiction is an epidemic, but we never use that word to describe it. Everything that should be public is secret and viceversa. That’s why Spat is all about telling his secrets. He knows, by instinct, that he has to. While it doesn’t ‘cure” him, it certainly starts to clarify things.
4. Did any authors/books influence you, when writing this book? I got huge Irvine Welsh vibes, myself.
I have to admit that I’m delighted/horrified by that comparison. Not sure why. I have only read two of his books, but I like him a lot. I try not to let any other voices in, so I never read while I’m writing. I couldn’t say who I’m like or unlike. Most of my early influences were writers people would not expect me to revere. I love all of Samuel Beckett’s work. Harold Pinter, Milan Kundera, Derek Walcott, Toni Morrison – I love them all for reasons too numerous and boring to get into here.
5. What was the best book you read this summer? What’s your favourite classic novel?
I don’t read. I know. It’s weird. But I’ve been writing a lot in the last little while, so I haven’t read any fiction. It has probably been six or seven years since I’ve read a novel. While writing the new book – Atomic Storybook – I had to read a lot of physics. That broke my brain. None of what I had to understand is in the book, of course. That’s always the way.
As for classics, I love Crime and Punishment. I love Dubliners and The Dead by Jame Joyce. I don’t know if it counts as a classic, but The Tin Drum knocked me on my ass back in the day.
Thank you Ed for answering my questions! The rest of you: go read this book so I can talk to you about it. I have a copy you can borrow.