Waste, by Andrew F. Sullivan. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books, March 2016. 256 pages. $15.95, paper.
Waste is a rapid-action unconventional novel that takes place over two days in 1989 in the fictional and economically dying town of Larkhill in southern Ontario, Canada. Larkhill is lined by porn stores, discount tax offices, and apartments patched with plywood windows. The twelve manufacturing plants that used to provide jobs are now gray lots covered in concrete and barbed wire with sulfur and asbestos bubbling under crabgrass. Economic distress and specific environments like the butcher shop, liquor warehouse, bowling alley, and Dynasty Motel (called “Da Nasty”) drive the characters’ desperate choices and mistakes, which often lead to failure.
The first chapter creates the tone sustained throughout the book—brutally violent and grotesque, yet at times hilarious. One of the middle-aged “ZZ Top” brothers (also known as “The Beards”) carries out the instructions of their great and powerful boss (yes, The Wizard of Oz is a repeated motif) by taking a drill to another character’s kneecaps. As the drill penetrates flesh and bone, the battery dies twice. ZZ Top guy complains, “Mastercraft ain’t worth a shit. Gimme DeWalt any day.” During a Skype conversation with the author in March, Sullivan agreed he tries to create hilarity through references to pop culture and the mundane. The result moves the novel from realism to what the author calls “pseudorealism.”
Sixteen-year-old skinheads Jamie Garrison and Moses Moon, coworkers who clean vats of trim, fat, and blood at the butcher shop (and also go to high school), crash into a lion on their way home from work, killing it instantly. The lion’s death drives the action—whose lion is it? What was it doing isolated and alone in Larkhill? What will be the consequences of killing it? Three additional tattooed, prejudiced, desperate teens join what Sullivan calls a “misguided, mythical quest” involving lost fathers and mothers, dysfunctional families, merciless murder, a father who performs experimental surgeries on his wife and son, the wheeling of a dead body in a little red wagon pulled by bicycles, and Moses’s wish that Bill Murray could be his father.
The approximately two hundred fifty pages of text contain more than thirty characters. The exact number depends on whether you count the continuously taunting town of Larkhill and several inanimate objects like the teal bowling ball named Judge whose three eyes refuse to look at the damage it has caused and which Moses Moon’s mother Elvira loves as much as her children. Or the carpet that swallows everything. I have rarely read a book in which all of the characters, large and small, human and nonhuman, are treated with such close attention by the author. The only flaw is the number of characters, which at times creates confusion.
This book is complex, told through current action and flashbacks. Each chapter is expressed through the close third person point of view of alternating characters. It feels like a camera lens is inches from their faces. This can create serious discomfort for the reader—and sometimes delight—and it results in a riveting read. At times, the point of view feels omniscient. Sullivan said he intended that Larkhill was “chiming in” during these times. It works. The seamless change does not create confusion, but rather, enhances the telling of the story.
The mythical mood of the book comes from the fun Sullivan had meticulously picking out characters’ names—The Lorax, ZZ Top brothers, Moses and Elvira Moon, Don Henley (who never heard of the Eagles)—and references to pop culture: Bill Murray, John Candy, Bill Cosby, the Terminator. In one of the final scenes, The Wizard of Oz plays in the background amid horror and violence.
Waste is comparable to works by southern writer Harry Crews. The novel has the same tone of brutality and hilarity that Crews created in A Feast of Snakes. Few, if any, Canadian authors have attempted anything like this mixture of vicious, relentless action, unconventional plot, jarring tone, and a pseudorealistic mythical quest by skinhead teenagers who make life-destroying choices within one very bad weekend. The inspiration of Harry Crews comes through. It will be fun to discover which Canadian authors in the future will, in turn, be inspired by Sullivan.
The childhood Sullivan experienced in southern Ontario also influenced the book. Sullivan stressed that he had wonderful parents, unlike most of his characters. But his hometown was a place where a disorganized mistake by a teenager not yet grown into his body (such as robbing a bank for $1,500) could undo a life. During his childhood, boys would go to the movies to fight people; everything was visceral—“body on body.” Casual violence was a tool used by good people, not only evil. Sullivan believes we make our own choices, but are also bent by circumstances. Not fate. “No one expects what they’re given, but the weight of it is so heavy. This is the instigating trauma of the book.”
Robyn Ringler graduated from the University of Tampa MFA program in June 2015 and received the “Outstanding Graduate Award” for academic excellence and service. Her collection of short stories, Occupational Hazards, was completed as her thesis. Ringler’s work has appeared in the Yellow Chair Review; two anthologies, Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present and Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies; on NPR and Martha Stewart Radio. Ringler holds degrees in nursing and law and owns East Line Literary Arts in upstate New York.