Parents, spouses, jobs, friends, teachers, heroes and so forth are suppose to be nurturing and stead-fast pillars for us to believe in. But they do fail. And when they do fail, we falter. So do we grow and move on when they fail? Or do we fall with them? That is the type of journey Grant Buday explores in his novel A Sack of Teeth.
While Jack was in the suitcase, his father and mother, Ray and Lorraine, were drinking rye and seven and watching the news. They were seated on the Danish modern couch, separated by copies of Chatelaine and Life and a bowl of Liquorice Allsorts.
Ray was watching KVOS, the one U.S. station their rabbit ears picked up. President Johnson announced that the U.S. now had 200,000 ground troops in Vietnam. Ray whistled and shook his head in admiration and said, “Jesus.” Various leaders gave their opinions, including Castro, who shook his fist at American imperialism. Ray said, “He’s the bastard who killed Kennedy.”
Ray took the glass bowl of Liquorice Allsorts and occupied himself by picking out the triple-layered ones, peeling them apart, eating the filling then eating the liquorice itself. Sometimes he collected all the triple-layered ones and hid them on Jack and then presented them to him as a gift because Jack loved them, too. It occurred to him that Jack should be in bed soon. He turned to say something to Lorraine but was diverted by the start of Rat Patrol. The opening sequence of jeeps cresting a dune made Ray’s heart vault. An industrial engineer who’d learned about ordnance in the army, Ray didn’t so much watch Rat Patrol as study it. When the first bout of shooting started he spotted a flaw.
The beauty of a good coming-of-age novel is that we can empathize or at least learn from the pain of the characters. And that is what one can do with this book. The story is set in September 1965 and it is Jack’s first day of school. But it also the day that Jack’s mother learns of her husband’s affair while trying to deal with the suicide of their downstair’s tenant (And her secret love.) Buday divides the narrative of the of the book between the voices of the three family members to brilliantly make the reader hear and feel the confusion and anguish of the lifestyle that exists in that cohesion.
Ray got in the car and closed the door. It shut with a solid sound, a thick chunk of a sound that he called “the sweet sound of quality engineering.” Lorraine watched the electric window whirr down and Ray slide the steering wheel over. That always struck her as unnatural and dangerous. Ray said it locked when you released the footbrake, yet to Lorraine it was a frightening reliance on technology. What happened if the steering wheel started doing that when you were driving? Ray said that was impossible. She didn’t believe it, which frustrated him. Everything frustrated him these days. He slid the key into the ignition with an almost sensuous touch that made Lorraine envious.
“I want to drive,” she said.
“Drive what, nails?”
Lorraine didn’t bother responding.
“Fine,” said Ray. “Get your licence.”
“But you’re not touching the Bird.”
“Why, why, why.” You sound like Jack.” He started the car, causing a great rumble of sound to gurgle up around the. Listen to that. It’s a V8.”
“So that’s why you can’t drive this car. You don’t appreciate it.” He could just imagine her with the Bird; she’d end up in San Francisco smoking Mary Jane with the hippies.
“You’re trying to control me.”
Buday’s words here are simple and concise. The language has a direct point and the sentences are simple. The mind’s eye of the reader has a clear impression of the points Buday brings across as soon as it is read.
Jack tugged at the unravelled fence and realized he could escape. His heart thumped against his chest. He looked back at the school where Mr. Gough was waiting with his yardstick. Jack ducked through the hole in the fence and stood in the weedy grass on the other side. It felt different over here. He felt fear and relief and was breathing fast. He wasn’t supposed to be outside the fence. Steve McQueen wasn’t even supposed to be near the fence in The Great Escape. He stood very still waiting for someone to yell at him, but no one did, no one was even watching. Those Grade 7s were kicking a different boy now and kids were still eager to snap sticks of Ivor’s hair. Jack quietly crossed the street that had bottle caps embedded in the tar and waded into the high fragrant grass, avoiding the spit bugs. Soon he was hidden amid the trees and smelled sap and wood.
A Sack of Teeth by Grant Buday is a brilliant coming-of-age novel. One can clearly empathize with the characters as they struggle in with the crises and failures around them. A brilliant read.