Small towns have always occupied a fraught place in Canadian storytelling. Unlike cities or the wilderness – places where things happen – small towns in our national literature have usually been defined by their sense of stasis, their innate conservatism. The town and its citizens contain a plot’s conflict, limit its impact, and drive it underground, often through silence and the peculiar half-forgetting that comes when people agree not to discuss events that live in their collective memory. This is the heritage Ray Robertson – a native of Chatham, Ontario – has inherited, and in 1979 he seems unable to make up his mind whether to embrace or reject it.
The novel is told from the perspective of Tom Buzby, a 13-year-old living in Chatham in the titular year. While 1979 is ostensibly a coming-of-age story, Tom is an uninteresting character to whom nothing of note ever really happens. (An ongoing plot point is that Tom has started keeping a diary of everything he eats. Nothing happens with this diary, but we hear a lot about it.) The book is really about life at a certain time in a certain place. In this, it excels. Robertson has a knack for capturing the texture of adolescent life, and his version of small-town Ontario is vividly rendered.
Unfortunately, the novel is marred by a number of technical problems. For the most part, Robertson manages to convincingly inhabit the voice and perspective of a 13-year-old boy. This is not an easy thing to do, as it requires a certain facility for dramatic irony; even though Tom doesn’t understand the full implications of what he is seeing and hearing, Robertson makes sure that we do.
But it is not always clear whether the story is being told by Tom in the narrative present or if we are reading the recollections of an older Tom looking back on his youth. For the most part, the voice is clearly that of an adolescent who doesn’t, for example, understand the difference between gorillas and guerrillas (a joke that was probably as tired in 1979 as it is now). From time to time, however, the lexicon shifts dramatically and for no apparent reason, as when Tom (not a particularly precocious boy) describes a street as “suburban bedlam” or refers to “summer-holiday-sprung children … sitting on the curb in dejected packs being preternaturally bored.”
The novel’s least endearing characteristic is the series of faux-news stories that punctuate the narrative. Tom is a paperboy, and with depressing regularity the story gets interrupted by little vignettes about various Chathamites, usually with some kind of cutesy title (“Chubby Hubby Drives Erotically Neglected Woman to Purchase Fancy Underwear”). The best simply offer a series of banal platitudes (“Everybody has to die, but some people actually manage to live first”), but the worst, like the grimace-inducing story of a Holocaust survivor, are inexcusable.
Under all the gimmicks, 1979 is the story of Tom’s family – his tattooist father, his intellectual sister, and his estranged mother. It is the story of their attempts to love each other, grow together, age together. It’s a quiet story, but one that does carry resonance; it’s hard not to feel the novel would have been more enjoyable had it simply hewn to its emotional core.