We tend to look at violence as a simple act. But we never really look at the complex roots of what causes people to turn violent. What makes one person act out with anger and malice? What is the result of violence after the act? Those and a myriad of other issues surrounding violence are the thoughts that one ponders after reading Andrew F. Sullivan’s complex novel Waste.
Connor Condon always hated his name. He hated the concussive force of those two C’s crashing out of his mother’s mouth every time she was pissed, back when they’d lived in his grandmother’s apartment. The sound chased him from room to room, rattling the dusty shelves and weaving its way through porcelain bears to find him hiding under the pullout couch he shard with his mother.
“We need you to wake up, and don’t you dare puke again.”
It wasn’t until sixth grade that Connor’s name truly became a curse in the outside world. The new bus driver, Marlene, believed she had to take attendance. Her tongue seemed far too big for her mouth when she drawled out his name through pierced lips.
“Tommy, just slap his face to wake him up. One good slap.”
All Connor heard were titters of laughter from the backseats. The bus driver’s massive tongue had mangled his name somehow. Kids stopped sitting beside him. Connor Condom. The name followed him for years, hunted him down hallways and trapped him in bathroom stalls, kids breathing down his neck, asking if his father was a Durex or a Trojan.
“Probably would have been easier if he was wearing clothes.”
A Thursday. It was a Thursday in tenth grade when they pulled the plastic bag over his head on the bus. The driver was too busy navigating a left-hand turn to see Connor’s face slowly turning purple as the bag pulled tighter and tighter. Connor remembered now that there was a green Chevy stalled in the turning lane. Before he passed out and smashed his face against the window, he noticed there was a receipt for Kmart in the bottom of the bag.
“Did you bring extra batteries, Al?”
For the next week, they had Connor in the hospital, measuring his breathing and brain activity every hour. They drained fluid from his brain on the second night. Connor did not remember that week. Two weeks later, he emerged with a new learning disability, a severe lack of hand-eye coordination, and a constant migraine. He walked home from the hospital.
Sullivan has done a brilliant job in taking a look at a ‘macro-sociological’ issue and brought it down to a level that many of us can relate to. Set in the city of Larkhill in 1989, we follow a group of the town’s citizens attempt to survive an economic downturn. Yet as one act of violence – a car accident involving a pet lion, a murdered individual found in the woods months after his demise – seems to bring on a call for revenge or fear by a one or two people of the town. And the ‘infection’ of violence seems to grow.
Everyone called the rambling motel Da Nasty. It leered out over the other smaller buildings on the block, five stories of clapboard and stucco. Moses had moved Elvira from motel to motel over the first few years of their exile, dodging the police and Children’s Aid while riding his bicycle to school. Elvira started collecting her bowling balls again, taking them into the shower with her. There were always complaints from housekeeping staff and neighbors concerning missing missing credit cards and stolen purses. Aliases like Allison Cooper, Joanna Page, Paula McCartney, and Gina Simmons littered the guest books of the tired, neon-coated hovels along the wide strip of the utility road.
Moses hated elevators. The spaces were too small, the walls always mirrored. Reflection after reflection of his pimply skull refracted to infinity till each pore glared at him. He always took the stairs up to the second floor and walked along the thick orange carpeting running his hands along the wall, looking for an open door, a wallet sitting on a dresser, a purse left in the bathroom. Occasionally he walked in on couples locked in complex positions he’d only seen in the pay-per-view movies. He would only order those after his mother passed out in the other double bed, moaning about her poor doggies and the betrayal of Big Tina.
“Mom, you around? I didn’t end up bringing back any food yet?”
The room still smelled liked moth balls and Pepto Bismol. The dark purple carpet was covered in cigarette burns. The blinds to the balcony were closed. Most of the balconies in Da Nasty were locked. There were too many lonely men romancing the concrete five stories down. Pigeons and a lone red-tailed howk now ruled the balconies, slowly coating the rails in white each summer, only to have it washed away by the rain and snow every winter.
“Hey, Mom, you here?”
Sullivan weaves a great mise-en-scene with this book by going from descriptions to thoughts/conversations of one of the characters. In taking one’s time in reading the book, we get a feel of a general situation and understand why the characters are pushed into doing what they do. We are forced to ponder each situation and reflect on it later on. The language is simple and frank at times but that adds to the colourful story.
B. Rex had a new tattoo emblazoned on his neck. It was dripping
“You didn’t do that one yourself, did you B?” Moses said.
The car bounced over the potholes on the utility road. The neon lights of the highway strip faded behind them as the Buick nursed its way through the slush. No one came down here.
“Yeah. This morning. Had the money, finally, not like it was a big job, but I’ve been getting stiffed by the folks lately. Think they’re still mad about me trimming the hair.”
B. Rex had the worst ingrown hairs of the three, mainly due to his refusal of the disposable razor at Logan’s house a few months earlier. He brought his grandfather’s straight razor from World War II instead, a family heirloom his grandfather kept in the study with his tax receipts and old Playboy magazines. B. Rex cut himself eight times before finally accepting the shaving cream and disposable Bick. He wore a hat for a while afterward until the scabs fell off.
“They still won’t let you work, huh?” Moses said.
“Nope. Mom says as soon as I start earning my own money, that’s the last they’ll see of me, and I mean, they’re right,” B. Rex said. “Oppressive as shit. I can’t even take like a shit without my dad asking about the size and color.
Andrew F. Sullivan has created a great book about people dealing with desperation and violence in Waste. It is a read that should be carefully read and consider but definitely one that has all the markings of the start of some great thoughts and discussions.
Link to my Q&A with Andrew F. Sullivan -“I wanted to write a Canadian book that dealt with violence, small scale, but very real violence we often ignore or don’t read about. It’s a currency we trade with each other.”