A charm­ingly chaotic tale

Teen from a dys­func­tional fam­ily is front and cen­tre in tale from Haisla/Heilt­suk author

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - EMILY DON­ALD­SON Emily Don­ald­son is the ed­i­tor of Cana­dian Notes & Queries. Spe­cial to the Toronto Star

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.

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