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Big White Knuckles

by Brian Tucker

As one might expect from the telegraphing-its-punches title, Big White Knuckles is another entry in the hardscrabble-realist tradition of Maritime writing. Dagan Cadden comes of age in an impoverished and often violent Cape Breton. His family is close knit, and like so many protagonists before him, he must eventually break away – though remaining eternally bound – and go his own way. The spectre of the coal mine (a kind of default symbol for Maritime novelists) threatens to swallow his future.

It’s fair to say that Tucker’s book sticks to its clichés, but nowhere is this more true than in its language. This is very much a novel of vernacular – fathers are called “Da,” mothers are “Ma,” the word “my” is replaced with “me.” And so on. But it’s the polyvocal swearing that does most of the heavy lifting, with “fuckin’” being the most common and adaptable. Richards, Nowlan, and Coady have been here already; we’ve seen these clans talk and tussle before. The challenge is to do something new with the language you have, but the language Tucker employs can’t transcend its limitations.

There are redeeming surprises here. Dagan describes his first drink of spirits as smelling “[s]trong and ancient, like a zombie’s vagina.” That’s unusual, and colourful, and far better than yet another “fuckin’.” But then this is followed by a description of the alcohol in which “A horrible fire slides down me throat….” That’s a cliché that no vernacular twist can resuscitate.

Does Dagan come of age? Of course. The issue of self-awareness is never really in doubt: Dagan is introduced in the novel already self-aware. Does he let go, does he acquire, both in the material and spiritual sense? Yes, yes. This novel has its moments, but it comes out of a tradition by now so well established and barnacled with convention that more is expected.