Tony Burgess is one of Canadian fiction’s most distinctive voices, characterized by a penchant for pushing envelopes and going to uncomfortable extremes. Idaho Winter, a short novel about a short novel that goes off the rails when its eponymous hero decides to overthrow the tyrannical author who has been tormenting him, will do nothing to change that reputation.
Set in Burgess’s usual stomping ground of semi-rural, hicktown Ontario, the grim opening pages introduce us to “poor pathetic Idaho Winter,” a young boy whose life is a grotesque parody of poverty and squalor (he breakfasts on maggoty roadkill, for starters). From such dismal beginnings things go even further downhill, as the townspeople – possessed of the instinctual cruelty and homicidal fury Burgess considers an inevitable part of the human condition – beset poor Idaho with everything short of torches and pitchforks.
A third of the way through the book, however, Idaho is introduced to the author, and realizes that he (Idaho) has the ability to write his own story while disappearing from the text himself. Idaho’s narrative is a mash-up of dinosaurs, old movies, and the rock band Green Day, which leaves the author to navigate a surreal landscape, “exposed to the violence of the narrative” and trying to regain control over his own creation, all the while serving up a stream of metafictional asides to the reader.
Idaho Winter, Burgess’s third book in less than a year, gives the impression of having been written in haste. It’s full of the upsetting and extreme imagery we’ve come to expect, but none of the poetry. The novel’s conceit isn’t that original and remains unresolved, despite the assistance of an editor who drops in to let us know that the book “does not have the resources required to solve its own problems.” What we’re left with reads like a dream diary haunted by a whole suite of conventional authorial anxieties. It provides an interesting snapshot of Burgess’s preoccupations, but feels like one of his slighter efforts.