Thank you to J. H. Gordon Books of Hamilton, Canada for making this book available (Their link here)
As time marches on for all of us, there remain a detritus of memories that haunt us. We dwell on those memories with either regret or joy over and over again. David Baillie has his protagonist pondering his life in his novel What We Salvage and the gritty memories that comes forward in it are shockingly familiar.
Tonight, the mods are scattered all over the north end of the Hammer – Hamilton, that is, our steel city home wrapping around the western tip of Lake Ontario. The north end is mostly industrial, but there are a few haunts scattered throughout. We were collectively vomited out of one recently, in fact, forced to make our way back to calmer waters by slogging through unfamiliar terrain. A shite portage, but you play the hand you’re dealt, I guess.
Or just don’t play the game at all, but that never occurred to us until later. When you’re sixteen, a carefully constructed identity is everything.
This is an honest, gritty and sometimes brutal coming-of-age novel that is frank and honest in its language and descriptions. Baillie has documented a reality that may be shocking to many English teachers but is reflective to many of us who struggled with our youth. His use of Hamilton, Canada as a setting is brilliant and unique yet also very familiar to many readers.
Glasgow, Aberdeen, Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Belfast – many of us are right off the boat, or were raised by those who were. And, of course, there’s no one as rabid as the expatriate. Hamilton’s replete with pubs that echo those of homelands left behind: dark wood and close quarters, house darts and cribbage board behind the bar, Belhaven and Tartan and Boddingtons and a dozen others on tap. Much of our own vocabulary, just echoes of street slang imported, too, apologetically mixed with Canadian vernacular.
The line in the sand’s been imported, too, boot culture divided neatly: mods, rudeboys and Trojan skinheads on one side, and a menagerie of racist bigots on the other.
Not that lines aren’t crossed.
Readers do witness the book/punk/street culture of the time but we also witness the maturing of a teenager into an adult. We see the hurt and the anger that comes with the passing of a friend or the loss of a love. And we see the continual anguish that continues to hurt us no matter how much time passes and causes us to reach for that extra drink or another puff. Yes, empathy for the characters happens quickly because Baillie has documented elements of the human condition in a simple fashion.
Debbie is elusive, accompanying Jimmy that spring to the occasional practice, the occasional gig. But nothing more.
I ask Tribal in confidence, see if he has any insight.
“So,” I begin. He’s half hanging out the only window of the single miserable room we share, muttering and cursing as he works to splice our upstairs neighbour’s cable. We rent the room from an old Italian couple – they own the four-storey building and rent out every possible square foot, from the vintage clothing shop at street level to an illegal makeshift firetrap of an apartment tucked into the goddam rafters.
“Pass me the pliers. No, other ones. The red handles.”
I comply and try again.
“So, what’s your take on Debbie, eh?”
“What do you mean, ‘my take’?”
“I mean, why isn’t she around very much?”
But Tribal pulls himself back in and gives me a long hard look.
“Don’t you have a girlfriend?” he says. Then he crawls back out onto the sill.
A warning, and well meant. Staying faithful isn’t what Tribal means, that sort of thing not really a pressing concern amongst our lot. It’s about staying loyal, a reminder about crossing lines. Jimmy’s claim is ambiguous, but it’s there.
As for the girlfriend comment, this not exactly true. Not yet, anyway. But close, I think.
What We Salvage by David Baillie is a gritty and honest coming-of-age novel. It is frank and brilliant and reflects a reality that is familiar to many of us. A great read.