By: Thom Vernon
Coach House Books, May 2010, 216 pp, Paperback $19.95
This is an updated review of Thom’s book that appeared in the Arthur. I will have a featured interview with Thom posted by tomorrow evening to accompany this review.
Thom Vernon has crafted a wonderful and compelling novel that is both difficult to put down, and at times, emotionally painful to endure. Vernon hails from Arkansas, but currently calls Toronto his home. His working life has involved an eclectic mixture of jobs and it is very much reflected in his ability to capture the nuances of both dialogue and character development in the novel. If this book is a marker for what is to come, queer fiction literature, as categorized by both Vernon and the publisher, will be much the richer in the future. CanLit, that ever-nebulous field of writing, is also much the better for it.
The novel takes place in a small town in northeastern Arkansas and focuses on four characters. Julie is forty-six and an expectant mother who cannot stand the thought of being pregnant again. Charlie, her husband, does not want to help Julie cope with her complex emotions and is in the final days of an affair with his best friend, Wilson, a female who works at the local Singer factory. Charlie’s affections have become newly focused on a new subject, a pet calf. Wilson, if you’re still following, is no longer infatuated with Charlie, but is in love with her childhood friend, Dol. She is a transsexual father of two who desperately wants to make the transition to female but can’t afford the financial costs of the transition. These brief descriptions do not capture what is one of the greatest strengths of Vernon’s novel – character development. I challenge all readers to not care very deeply about what happens to all of these characters, and in particular Dol, who is experiencing an extremely conflicted and tortuous life.
Vernon has chosen to tell the story in the first person with each of the four main characters narrating the events that unfold chronologically over the course of one wintry evening. The narrative unfolds chronologically with chapter headings detailing the character and the time at each chapter’s beginning. There are some temporal overlaps from chapter to chapter with several flashbacks skillfully interwoven into the larger story. There is great intimacy in the way that Vernon crafts the novel – it is very easy to climb into the minds of each narrator. The entire novel has a feeling of claustrophobia, as the characters can never seem to avoid or escape each other. They cannot seem to find any space for privacy within the small, closely-knit town. This lends great effect to the dramatic events that unfold over the evening.
In this excerpt, Julie and Wilson discuss womanhood.
Wilson took a pointed sip of her beer. ‘We’re right back where we started. You don’t think much of what a woman is.’
‘Oh no. I have the utmost – I know what it is. To be a woman. Getting. The equipment. That’s the nothing part of a woman, look at your … friend. He can do it in his bathroom. Nah, it’s the stuff your mama teaches you. How not to take up space. Look away when a boy gets a look at you. Spend every minute of every day of your life thinkin’ about how other people see you, every minute of every mucking day thinkin’ what somebody else needs, and when you get an extra minute to yourself, you can just think about how that’s affectin’ other people!’
At times, the book may prove to be challenging, and occasionally frustrating for some readers to follow. Some of the language is very much rooted in the American south; although I would say that I find much of the language very similar to rural western Canadian cadence and rhythms. Vernon’s text is not meant to be skimmed, but should be savoured for its richness and depth. Charlie’s chapters are particularly interesting in that his white, straight, male privilege affords him the ability to communicate to the reader without punctuation and explicitly flouting rules and customs that are oppressive to others in the novel. Several of Vernon’s characters are flawed and unlikable in many ways, thus lending some stark realism to the novel. This rawness is an obvious strength of the novel.
The book does have a few areas that are weaker than others. One criticism is that the novel comes to a quick close with little if any denouement. I was not seeking a neat and packaged ending, but with the power of the rest of the novel, the closing is exceedingly disappointing. I am sure that Vernon will address this in his future writing and it does not seriously diminish the overall quality of the book. Additionally, because the novel moves so quickly over an evening, I did find it difficult to understand some of the intense attraction that certain characters experience for others despite the flashback sequences that attempt to contextualize the evening’s events. This is not intended to be a sweeping epic, but there is not nearly enough of an exploration of some of the deepest feelings of the four main characters – something that Vernon may want us, as readers, to create on our own. However, I did feel somewhat shortchanged by this lack of exploration on the author’s part.
While the themes of identity, gender, sexuality, infidelity, love, job loss, health care and animal rights are all explored in Vernon’s novel, there is never a sense that he is proselytizing. This book offers wide appeal and could serve as a gateway to readers who have never read a title from the genre of queer fiction. Thom Vernon has written a fine first novel and I believe that many if not most of you will be moved or possibly even changed in some way by its power.