“No one wants to hear what’s going on in some jailbird’s heart now do they?”
It comes near the end of the novel, but I suspect that Joel Thomas Hynes took this idea as a challenge, that that’s what inspired his Giller-Prize nominated novel We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night.
Known for his gritty and evocative stories, Hynes dives deeply into a single and sustained voice.
He presents a jailbird’s heart to readers and dares them to peek inside.
And, well, it’s on you, if you do: it’s bound to be bloody. It’s a heart, right?
Hynes’ use of language goes a long way towards building Johnny’s character. He speaks loudly and dramatically, addressing himself openly.
Structurally, his sentences erupt. From a single word to a seemingly endless stream of words: Johnny lets it all spill.
Commas appear erratically and apostrophes are mostly sheltering from the storm of run-on sentences, somewhere out of view.
Mostly, Johnny doesnt and cant but, strangely enough, he’s still there and that’s okay. (It seems, someone made an editorial decision, a rather arbitrary one, but perhaps the idea of no apostrophes at all provoked alarm.) And the -ing’s and the ‘ens are doen their own thing too.
Sometimes dialogue is all in a burst, in a long chunk of prose, the back and forth of it all seething in a mass. Sometimes it is laid out in lines on a mirror, the glare of the in-between stark but the speakers unmarked.
Hynes is also a musician and an actor, and the rhythm of this story is ever-shifting, which requires the strength of a performer who can deliver in long periods of silence and also in long monologues.
Because the novel is told in Johnny’s voice, readers are relentlessly in his perspective. So, readers do not visually experience his silence, but Johnny spends a lot of time alone. He is a lonely character, swirling around in his own thoughts and memories for the majority of the time.
So not only the sentences are erratic, but the novel’s entire structure is all over the place.
The prose is arranged in drips and drops, sometimes, and other times swells into tsunami-styled waves.
This is a story which takes time to read. Readers need to allow each word to hold its own space, as huddled or expansive as that may be, according to Johnny’s emotional state.
Readers who require their punctuation to toe the King’s English line will likely abandon this book before the third page, but readers who appreciate voice-driven fiction will be accustomed to this kind of carefully stylized prose.
“And sometimes, hey Johnny, sometimes you just gotta take a risk on some folks. Sometimes the good guys are in disguise and you cant very well go about with no faith in no one, none of the time.”
Readers who are willing to take a risk on Johnny’s story will find some hidden depths there. To begin with, Johnny is a reader. And something of a philosopher, given the amount of time he spends ruminating on the meaning of life and “all that childhood shit”. “It’s all in the past. Around this time of year though, I tend to have to work it out a little, all over again. It’s not something you ever quite get over, you know.”
And, there is also a backstory. Although with the exception of resurfacing memories, the novel is structured chronologically.
The following passage is a lengthy example of the way Johnny’s memories intrude on the present-day. The younger he is, in his recollections, the more sensory-soaked they are. This one is notable because there is a small (literally) episode of violence, and there are many implied losses, so many, in fact, that readers might almost overlook the fact that one life is saved.
“Young Johnny’s hands blistered numb and the sweet smell of slaughtered wildflowers, the constant stabbing itch from the dried dead root-ends of the hay sticking in under Johnny’s shirt, and that perpetual grimace on Pius’s sunken, miserly gob, that ceaseless sneer shattered by the pale rumour of a smile when a little calico kitten backflipped up out of a haystack and caught a butterfly in its jaws and clamped down, crunching the fluttering alien thing until it was gone, nothing but the shimmering yellow wing dust smeared about the kitten’s mouth. It was the only time Pius had set the prong down all morning. Johnny and Pius stood there watchin. And Johnny thought he saw Pius smile. And that was the one kitten from the whole litter that never met its end off the head of the government wharf.”
There is a moment of lightness at the end of the story,isn’t there? At the mere idea that one kitten, amongst all the other kittens, was saved? But then a shadow falls across. Because it was a butterfly-muncher after all. Not a playful and energetic kitten who swatted the creature too hard and then continued on with whatever it was doing. Instead, you can almost hear the crunch and the grit of it.
There is some dust left behind every mouthful of this story. The wincing outweighs the grinning, for sure. But it is also an amazing and immersive reading experience.
It all begins with “What’s going on Johnny?” And We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night is the answer.
Dark and indelicate, often sharp but sometimes unexpectedly tender.
If you are interested in reading about the other books on this year’s Giller longlist, check out my Autumn 2017 Awards and Events page. You can also find more Giller chat via the Shadow Giller Jury on KevinfromCanada’s enduring webpage.
We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night‘s superpower is its jailbird.
He’s not a love-him-or-hate-him character. He’s the character designed to prove that there is no such character. Readers might want to hate him, but he knows the word empathy. There is a lot of despicable behaviour but some honourable too, along with an uncomfortable amount of bodily fluids (unspecified to avoid spoilers). Joel Thomas Hynes’ novel overflows with voice and presentation. Giller juries sometimes listen to jailbirds, as they did with Lisa Moores’ Caught (shortlisted in 2013), and pirates, as with Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates (shortlisted in 2016). This year’s jury has an eye on the outsider, but could choose to promote a story with more complex structure.