There's a certain strain of teen folklore that could maybe be a sombre cautionary tale, but is more often delivered like a grandstanding party trick. That death-by-rope-swing accident. Your buddy's improvised dentistry. How so-and-so's left fingers were never seen again.
Growing up in the south end of Oshawa, a gloomy quasi-industrial Ontario city 60 kilometres outside of Toronto, author Andrew F. Sullivan has heard plenty of morbid rumours like these.
"They built my elementary school right beside a train track," he recalled—apparently an endless source of stories about frisbee throwers' amputated legs.
"There'd be ones about cops showing up to a bush party, and someone throwing a can of aerosol paint into the fire," he told VICE, "it went horribly wrong, and a kid actually got impaled with a chunk of aerosol spray can… stuff like that was passed around my schools."
Often tinged with sex or violence, it's the kind of chatter that's especially familiar if your hometown happens to be wedged between farmland and one of Canada's more respectable cities. (At the very least, it's something I relate to, being from London, Ontario).
In his debut novel Waste, Sullivan takes that rumour-milled lens and points it right back at the town of his childhood, known to many simply as the 'Shwa. The result is both nostalgic and timely—a sideways look at a city's underbelly animated by skinheads, head trauma, ZZ Top beards and exotic pet owning drug dealers.
Oshawa denizens have already praised the book for its attention to setting and aesthetic. In the Walrus last week, Jay Hosking recounts the landmarks that featured prominently in his own experience growing up: "The sad strip-club hotel along the baseline, the Dynasty, which everyone called 'Da Nasty'? That was really there," he wrote. "The abandoned psychiatric facility, the Iron Maiden blaring from basement apartments, and the rundown housing on Olive Avenue? These were givens if you were born and raised in Oshawa before 1990."
It's not just recognizable buildings that make the book seem necessary—it also reminds how full of darkness and desperation youth can be. Sullivan draws on experience working at liquor warehouses and butcher counters, referencing his own life as if it were trivia. It's a bizarro documentation not often seen in Canada's literary scene, but its core commentary resonates much further down the 401.
The story follows Jamie and Moses, two guys working a meat counter in the fictional town Larkhill. "I did pick a different name because it's also parts of London, Peterborough, Hamilton, Windsor," Sullivan said. "These are our blue collar former industry towns that are now a bit crippled."
The book is set in 1989, a year that real-life Oshawa's car manufacturing industry took a big hit. "The book actually takes place when there was sort of a downturn in manufacturing, but I feel that's being mirrored again," Sullivan said.
(Perhaps not coincidentally, the Shwa's reputation for weird criminal leanings seems to have grown in the meantime.)
Jamie and Moses manage to crash into a stray lion on their drive home one night, which sets the city's criminal element after them. What happens to them and others in the book is truly disturbing—suffocated in plastic, beaned with a bowling ball—but wouldn't seem out of place told around a bush party fire.
For Sullivan, trauma doesn't necessarily have to be separated out from slapstick payoff. Ideally he prefers them to coexist in a sort of Lynchian disharmony. "I think it can still serve both purposes—it can be a bit funny but there's a real tragedy in the background."
To write the book, Sullivan camped out in the Shwa's downtown public library. "In the acknowledgements I say thanks for keeping the water running and bathrooms pretty clean," he said.
His research included poring over community newspaper clips from the '80s, where he found one- and two-inch crime briefs that begged to be retold: "You read a man was thrown out of a four storey window, but luckily landed on an RV and survived," he said. "For me it gives raw material to work with, but then part of you knows it is true, [it's] like an anonymous truth."
There are no good characters in this book, but they are complicated. And in quiet moments, say when bodies aren't being stuffed in dumpsters, there's a disorienting familiarity: the Hasty Mart, the pawn shop across the street, the abandoned hotel pool with a dead crow in it.
As Canada faces down the worst oil price plunge in a generation, Waste might be an opportunity to get reacquainted with the predatory temp agencies, abandoned factories, and slowly climbing teen pregnancy rates that came with previous economic downturns. It's a close look at some rough edges that Sullivan tells me aren't often featured in Canadian literature.
"You hear about the prairie farmer, the professor in the city, the bad thing that happened in another country but now I'm here—you don't get a lot of confrontations of the kind of poverty that's not in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal," Sullivan said. "That place between the field and the warehouse is sort of undocumented."
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