Reviewed by Dessa Bayrock
It’s 1989, late at night, in small-town Ontario.
Jamie and Moses are driving home from their job in a butcher shop, reeking of old blood and bone, when they hit a lion in the road.
Two men in the woods pin down a third, driving the hungry bit of a power drill into his kneecaps. When they finish, they tell him he has more than enough time to crawl out of the woods and get help before he bleeds to death. He doesn’t.
A man in a hobby shop tends his impressive backroom crop of marijuana and sorts mushrooms and prescription painkillers into tiny packets. He calls himself “the Lorax,” and he talks to himself.
The crossroads of these three stories – not to mention the story of three sorry-looking skinheads, who tried to learn hatred out of a book, and a man kicked out of medical school for performing horrifying elective surgery on his wife, and another who accidentally shot himself through the hand years ago and can still see through the hole in his palm – combines into the twisting, horrifying narrative of Andrew F. Sullivan’s Waste. It’s a punch to the gut, a blown pupil of a novel.
The idea of a lion crossing the road in Ontario seems like it should be a whimsical one – humorous, even – but this novel was anything but humorous or whimsical. Who would own a lion in a small town, after all, except a drug dealer? And in a town full to the brim with senseless violence, large and small, it is no small thing to say the kingpin of the underworld is more capable of senseless and inventive violence than most. Jamie and Moses are neck-deep in personal tragedy before they run over the lion – and dealing with the most fearsome, nameless man in town hardly alleviates their troubles.
All in all, it would be a challenge to find a grimmer novel than Waste. The book is bent on cataloguing the depth and intensity of darkness, laying out and comparing the miniature tragedies colouring each small-town citizen like a series of macabre paint chips. Rather than seeking redemption, the characters of Waste continually find new and improved ways of hating each other and themselves, of spitting venom at the world in general, of tearing apart their own bodies and hearts and community until nothing is left.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the reader sees potential and goodness glimmering in almost every character, way down at the bottom of the well. But ultimately that potential never comes to anything, leaving only a sick sort of grief in the pit of the reader’s stomach. We think we see hope in the figure of Jamie’s four-year-old daughter, perhaps the only character not yet poisoned by the town and the people in it – but this hope, too, must be abandoned with the child’s first words, whispered at the dinner table to no one in particular: Bitch… sloppy, rutting bitch. No one in this book remains unscathed, none of the buried goodness in these characters will ever reach its full potential, and instead we must return to the title of the book in a refrain of mourning: what a waste, what a waste, what a waste.
Waste is published by Dzanc Books, 2016