The Sighs around the Sudbury Slags – Review of “The City Still Breathing” by Matthew Heiti (2013) Coach House Books

The economic downturn left a lot of people with a confused sense of loss. Once proud centres of industry are slowly collapse inside themselves. So what is life like for the individuals of such a town. That is the brilliant element that Matthew Heiti explores in his novel The City Still Breathing.

Normando sits on the tail of his Warlock, bow legs dangling, sun coming up. He uses the fender of the truck to pop the cap on his Northern and takes a long pull of warm beer. Scratches his belly through blue-checkered flannel, looks at the twenty-foot head of King George looking back at him. Damned big thing. Bunch of damned wood with some silver paint – doesn’t know that but it’s what he’s heard. (Page 16)

The northern city of Sudbury, Ontario is known for being a mining community.  And with that fact comes it’s reputation of harshness and grit. In The City Still Breathing Heiti has documented the lives of eleven people of that town as they try to deal with a disappearance of a dead body from a police van.

He thinks about the body in the back and tries to make a story for this man. Thinks about the lonely kind of life you’d have to live for this lonely kind of end to it. A plain face, no identifying marks on the body, no identification of any kind, nothing to call his own. Probably middle-aged, halfway into some kind of life, some kind of career. Nothing really fulfilling. A failed relationship, the usual wreckage. No kids. Colleagues, people to shoot the shit with – talk about the hockey game – but no real friends. Drinks too much. Watches too much television. Spends to many evenings alone. No devastating failures but no real sense of accomplishment. Had some potential at one time, now no real value. No real loss.  (Page 13-14)

Heiti has a great writing style. He is able to write in a voice to each of his characters. The prose is simple and easy to understand. A reader can clearly see and hear Sudbury in their mind’s eye.

She focuses on the window – the grey bungalows and grey sky and a few grey snowflakes snaking the grey pavement and grey morning oozing into grey afternoon – everything a grey paste moving by, helping her block out all that silence coming from Slim. Heck chattering away in the back seat, something about a movie he saw at the Odeon, like anyone gives a shit.

All that grey it’s a wonder the city doesn’t just puke it all up. A big wave right down Highway 69, the Dart riding the front of it all the way to Toronto. All of it giving over to the colour of Yonge Street, the spinning neon of Sam the Record Man, the grey in her sucked out just like that. But instead Slim has them going against it, right back to the ruined heart of the city, back downtown. She cracks her window, lights a menthol and lets the smoke trail out with all the rest of it. (Page 25-26)

The City Still Breathing by Matthew Heiti is a thoughtful and profound read. He has captured the mood of Sudbury – if not many communities in North America – with this novel. Not a book to be rushed through, but read carefully and with consideration.

Link to Coach House Books page for “The City Still Breathing”

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