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Blood Sports

by Eden Robinson

In a recent interview with the Toronto Star, author Michael Redhill confessed that he has become “less married to mainstream, lyrical kinds of writing … I would like to have the courage to make less sense and to be wilder as a writer.” Wishes for greater courage and wildness notwithstanding, it is undeniable that “mainstream, lyrical kinds of writing” currently exert the greatest gravitational pull in Canadian publishing. Even ostensibly tough writers often feel the need to include a little italicized exotica and some gauzy landscaping so as not to be denied a seat at the grownups’ table.

Traplines, Eden Robinson’s 1996 debut, was the rare Canadian book that existed entirely outside that orbit. Closer in spirit and execution to the more naturalistic end of Stephen King’s oeuvre than anything by Michael Ondaatje, the four short stories collected in Traplines were grim, frequently violent tales of children being batted around by their casually brutal guardians.

Though some of the stories, in their willfully abrupt shifts in time, tone, and perspective, betrayed some possible lingering effects of Robinson’s creative writing degree (she is a graduate of the famed UBC writing program), the book as a whole showed incredible control and a rare sense of immediacy. Traplines was also remarkable for its ability to depict violence and abuse not as shocking aberrations to be obsessed over, as is the case in most middlebrow Canadian literature, but as constants – almost the norm. Healing was not the goal of the stories’ damaged protagonists; rather, they struggled to survive by finding the least painful option among the very few available to them.

The tug of the lyrical middle could be felt in Monkey Beach, Robinson’s first novel. Though the book found its origin in a story in Traplines, the taut, hungry prose of the first book got fattened up and softened in the second, the narrator gaining a telltale eye for the swaths of pretty description to be mined from the natural world. Perhaps not coincidentally, that book was nominated for the 2000 Giller Prize.

Blood Sports is also drawn from one of the stories in Traplines – in this case, the 100-page novella “Contact Sports.” In the original story, Tom is an epileptic, pothead teenager living in a small Vancouver apartment with his alcoholic mother and under the malevolent thumb of his cousin Jeremy. The clash between the two cousins builds to the point where Tom arranges to have Jeremy’s expensive new car stolen, pushing Jeremy to trap and torture his young cousin out of revenge.

Blood Sports picks up the story five years later. Tom has had a baby girl with Paulie, a former junkie who had been mixed up with Tom’s cousin, and the two are attempting to build a zone of normalcy around themselves. The novel repeatedly circles back in time to fill in some of the events of the past five years, as well as gain new perspective on pivotal scenes from “Contact Sports.” (It turns out Jeremy is a compulsive videographer, and has been videotaping himself and his cousin for years.)

Tom’s old apartment building has burnt down, Tom’s mother has gone AWOL, a man is dead (thanks to Tom), and Jeremy is in jail. One of Jeremy’s old associates is looking to get something out of his former partner in crime, and so takes Tom and his young family hostage as both bait and bargaining chip.

Aside from the scenes of Tom and Paulie’s odd courtship and their first, nervous steps into parenthood, there is violence and pain on nearly every page of this novel. Tom’s body is very nearly a character unto itself, and the abuse it endures – from his epilepsy, from beatings, from sadistic and methodical torture at the hands of his captors – is unrelenting. That he seemed to be on track to becoming a good father and husband is almost miraculous, though we’ve already learned on the novel’s first page that this does not last.

The good news is that this time Robinson has gone back not only to the settings of her Traplines stories, but to their feel as well. The prose here is fat-free, made up mostly of cuss-laden dialogue and terse exposition. When she does allow herself to describe the scenery, she gives it the same hard tint as the rest of the book: “The waves rolled up the beach in leaden humps and then flattened before slinking backward. Anchored in the Burrard Inlet, three tankers pointed in different directions as if they’d just had a fight and were refusing to look at each other.”

Robinson handles her back-and-forth structure well, though some of the old extra-credit tricksiness with time and perspective creep in, slowing the pace through the middle. When she finally takes her hand off the brake for the novel’s climax, it is with a palpable sense of relief and engagement. Blood Sports doesn’t flinch – when we leave him at the end of the book, Tom is in a worse state than ever.

Blood Sports does not quite feel like a major work but rather a regrouping, a gathering of strength and resources. It struggles to stand alone from “Contact Sports,” and though it works well as a companion piece, it never quite matches the earlier story’s compact kick. Still, if Blood Sports ultimately leads more people back to Robinson’s wild and courageous debut, there are worse fates for a book and a writer.