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Crosstown

by Richard Scrimger

The new face of fiction is bleary, drunk, and male. The spring season has blessed Canada with not one, but three novels about the travails of bloated white guys residing in a mean Toronto. Finally, Toronto literature is moving away from tiresome portrayals of upper-class life, and toward darker, restless texts such as Richard Scrimger’s first novel, Crosstown.

Scrimger’s novel, like N.J. Dodic’s Muck (1996), and Eldon Garnett’s Reading Brooke Shields (1996), employs the tell-all confessional of a first-person account to gratuitously chronicle the idiosyncrasies of failure in the big city. Unlike the two aforementioned texts, however, Scrimger uses a conventional writing style more interested in drama than detail; the result is an unlikely but highly entertaining plot.

The incoherent Dr. Mitchell starts off this novel as a homeless alcoholic surprised to discover that his shelter has been moved crosstown. What follows is a journey through the bowels of an accidental city populated by cops, perverts, and skinheads. Mitchell’s dazed account of his pilgrimage makes for a palatable and even funny metaphor that parallels the high-society flashback segments of the book. In these scenes, Mitchell’s rich obstetrician past infuses the book with a potboiler feel that wanders between literary fiction and parody. The flashbacks are a welcome reprieve from the better written but less vivacious scenes of Mitchell as a homeless zombie.

The journey crosstown is a restrained moral statement. Scrimger, a father of four and a waiter in Toronto, successfully undermines the constraints of genre fiction and the restraints of literature to accost the boundaries of class on his own terms. While neither the depictions of the homeless life, nor the lavish life are completely at ease with themselves, they do mark out the terrain across which the author and his character travel. Readers wary of plunging into the morass of urban Toronto fiction might be advised to first join Scrimger: his trip past beatings, mutant sex, ceaseless vomiting, and spontaneous urination comes with a gripping plot and some fine writing.