The Union of Smokers by Paddy Scott
Invisible Publishing, March 2020
A tale of trauma, a "theme essay," told in the singular bantering voice of a white twelve-year-old boy, Kaspar Pine, who might be on his deathbed.
One nice thing about living a short life: it's gonna be pretty much all highlight.
The story is set in 1960s fictional Quinton, Ontario, on the day the town's major employer, a creosote factory, shuts down.
People don't like to talk about occupational hazards around here, especially if they're dependent on the source of the hazard for survival. If you worked at Quinton's creosote plant you'd know what I mean. Its hazards leaked all over the place, up to the moment earlier today when it closed for good because of all that leaking. Nobody in Quinton talked about the creosote hazards either, because that's the sort of conversation that got you fired, even if the creosote made you sick.
Since he was six, Kaspar has lived on a farm with his grandparents. Being continually grateful for their kindness to him, he behaves well when he's at home. When he's elsewhere, he admits to being "a well-rehearsed asshole." I found his voice irritating, even while having some sympathy for him.
Hardly anybody in town ever smiled at me, and if they did, I knew they meant it as a caution light: You're entering dangerous territory.
The cover illustration, showing a chicken with its head cut off, is a warning. There's a lot of gross unpleasantness in this novel: talk (and throwing around) of dead canaries, of knackers and how they go about their job of killing animals, and of Kaspar's passion for smoking the cigarette butts that he collects.
[...] most things, not just cigarettes, should have filters on them. Drowned dads, cancer diagnosis, factory closings, canaries... What if all that unpleasantness slipped through charcoal-activated, menthol-flavoured felts of alternative possibilities first -- Heaven, or Medicare, or UIC -- and came out the other side with hints of hope? I've smoked roll-yer-owns and I've smoked things I'd found between the cracks in sidewalks, and no matter how crusty they'd gotten, even a sidewalk smoke with a filter doesn't come close to the eye-watering experience of a rollie.
All of Kaspar's "declarative-in-essay-form sonofabitch"-ness and wisecracking tends to obscure the important underlying narrative, which is about the terrible things that parents do to their children. And maybe that is part of the author's point: that children who have been traumatized might be annoying and unpredictable.
I tend to like novels like this, with a distinctive narrative voice, and a combination of humour and tragedy. The Union of Smokers misses the mark. It's okay, but too over-the-top. I didn't find Kaspar to be a believable character. Humour is a tricky genre. This might be perfect for another reader looking for a jokey approach to serious topics like environmental degradation and child welfare.
Giller chances: LOW
This post is part of a series. I'm on the Shadow Giller jury this year, so I'm reading as many qualifying Canadian titles as possible in order to come up with my own longlist prediction before the official one that will be announced on September 8, 2020. To see my other reviews that are a part of this project, click on the Shadow Giller tag. Also, please visit our Shadowing the Best of CanLit website to see what the rest of the Shadow Giller jury are up to. Thanks for visiting my blog.