A charmingly chaotic tale
Teen from a dysfunctional family is front and centre in tale from Haisla/Heiltsuk author
Chances are you won’t read a novel in 2017 with more vomiting in it than Eden Robinson’s “Son of a Trickster,” the first instalment in a planned trilogy by the Haisla/ Heiltsuk writer who first rose to prominence in the ’90s with a visceral book of short stories, “Traplines.”
Most ( though not all) of the spewing is drug- and alcohol-induced. As in her novels “Blood Sport” and her Giller Prize-shortlisted “Monkey Beach,” Robinson’s hero, Jared Martin, is a substance-abusing B.C. teen from a dysfunctional family of enablers. Jared funds his bad habits by baking and selling homemade pot cookies to the kids at his Kitimat high school, who show their appreciation by dubbing him “the Cookie Dude.”
Optics aside, Jared is fundamentally a sweet, responsible kid who gets the rent and bills paid when his dad blows his disability cheque on OxyContin, or his mother Maggie and her drug-dealing boyfriend, Richie, disappear on “business” (Maggie’s “Biblical sense of justice. Eye for an eye, bill for a bill” figures into this equation, too.). He regularly helps his elderly neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Jaks, who took him in when Maggie was sent for a stint in rehab and anger management for power-nailing her abusive ex-boyfriend David’s arms to the floor.
“I’d kill and die for you, Jellybean,” Maggie tells Jared. And it’s a claim we don’t doubt for a second. Not every mother supplies her 16-year-old with a handgun or “hunts” the family Christmas tree with an AK-47. When she finds out he’s been in contact with his dad, who abandoned her for his physiotherapist, however, Maggie seems prepared to turn her murderous sight on Jared himself, but in an admirable show of restraint she settles for knifing his mattress and trashing his room instead.
Jared has a relatively more conventional relationship with his sparky paternal grandmother Nana Sophia, who sends him jokey, loving texts as she trots the globe with her wealthy fourth husband. In contrast, Jared’s other grandmother, Anita Moody, has always been suspicious of him: she’s convinced he’s a Wee’git, or trickster, an accusation that confounds him. While Jared occasionally encounters talking ravens who advise him about what deodorant to wear, he’s less a perpetrator than a victim of his own goodwill, the kind of guy who gets duped into babysitting his stepsister ’s newborn so she can go out partying, or gets rolled for his pot.
In its melding of normalized violence, Native myth, gutter talk (Robinson wrote one of the familyunfriendly stories that allegedly led to the exit of The Walrus’s fiction editor, Nick Mount), and ready wit, “Son of a Trickster ” readily recalls its predecessors. What’s changed is the humour quotient, which is dialed up considerably. Not every joke lands, but Robinson does manage a few zingers: “You’re the voice in my head,” Jared says at one point to, well, the voice in his head. “Guilty as charged,” comes the immediate reply.
Robinson also plays with structure, an aspect of novel writing she has admitted she finds challeng- ing. Trick- ster is divided into 40 bite-sized chapters — vignettes, really — with riffy, borderline cutesy titles (“Oxydipal Complex,” “KFC & Beer Solve Everything,” “Welcome to the Jungle”). Though the approach works, it doesn’t stop the largely plot-free narrative from meandering a bit aimlessly at times. Seemingly important threads are introduced then left to wither. Though David’s violent spectre still looms large over Jared, the alluded-to backstory is never adequately fleshed out. Later, Jared’s politicized girlfriend, Sarah, appalled by his ignorance of Idle No More, goads him into marching. He goes, but the event itself is never described and the topic soon forgotten.
Smart-ass, rapid-fire interactions between characters, con- ducted as often through text as through talk, are one of the book’s strong suits, though as the novel stretches out, they tend to get formulaic. Maggie’s boundary-crossing sex talk predictably elicits “Ews” from Jared, while “Classy” is the rote sarcastic response one character gives to another when they’ve done something that isn’t.
A parade of fantastical elements in “Son of a Trickster’s” last quarter injects it with some weird and welcome vigour. A bear that ambles through the walls of Jared’s house, a group of fireflies with a penchant for dull philosophizing and conjugating French verbs, knuckle-walking ape-men, and toe-eating otter people — Jared can’t tell if the things he’s seeing are real or the result of the drugs, even though he’s sworn off hallucinogens. We’re entirely not sure either, and while we can’t help wishing they’d arrived a tad earlier to this charmingly chaotic party, late is better than never.
Son of a Trickster, Eden Robinson, Knopf Canada, 336 pages, $32.