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Sap

by John Swan

John Swan’s first novel, Sap, begins “Every two-bit dick-yarn starts with a beautiful woman. They stride on long legs with longer tales of woe and misunderstanding,” and ends with the novel’s narrator (also named John Swan – let’s call him Swan), telling someone that “truth’s for saps and poets.” Between those two keynote declarations, we have a recently widowed femme fatale (whose husband has died under suspicious circumstances), a sadistic cop, a gay loan shark with a thing for knives, a moribund race track, a real-estate development scheme, and Swan, a “wino ex-dick from the Hammer” (Hamilton, Ontario, John Swan’s hometown). This is the kind of noir novel where even Toronto squeegee-punks use expressions like “C-note.”

Swan the ex-dick stumbles only semi-wittingly into a mystery in which he solves less by good detective work than by lucky blundering. After being set up with Meg, the above-mentioned femme fatale, Swan takes her for a weekend at his favourite racetrack in Toronto’s seedy East End, where the two become entangled in a murder investigation.

Sap’s plot is unusually rambling and unfocused for the noir genre. Swan and Meg spend a lot of time just wandering around, drinking in bars or from hip-flasks, nearly getting into fights – at times there is more of The Big Lebowski than The Big Sleep here. In the novel’s funniest scene, Swan and Meg look for a missing girl at a rave. High on ecstasy, Swan quickly abandons the search in favour of teaching raver-kids the twist and getting naked on the roof. It is only in the novel’s last third (especially when John Swan stops monkeying with narrative chronology) that the plot starts to click together with any kind of urgency. Sap is a longish short story stretched out to book-length, but there are more than enough good scenes and snappy exchanges here to make up for the occasional bout of narrative inertia.