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Smoke

by Elizabeth Ruth

The brutal disfigurement of 15-year-old Buster McFiddie sets into motion this second novel by Elizabeth Ruth. In the frenetic opening scene, as Buster’s father vomits beside the bathtub while dousing his son’s melted skin, we know that if the boy survives, his life will be a painful one. And when the next chapter shows Buster’s despair in the context of the southern Ontario tobacco farming village of Smoke – and in the traditionalist 1950s to boot – we know another small-town misfit tale has begun.

All fictional characters are misfits to the extent that they are meant to stand out distinctly from their surroundings. Ruth knows this well. Like so many other fictional communities, her Smoke teems with full-blooded eccentrics, and the roving point of view ensures that more than a handful are roundly fleshed out. So although the action centres on the aftermath of Buster’s accident, there are enough intriguing subplots to keep the narrative from teetering over into the bathos that occasionally threatens to undermine its emotional impact.

At first Buster wants to leave Smoke and find a place where no one knows him; then, realizing his future lies with his father’s tobacco farm, he plots to make a hero of himself by foiling the armed bandit terrorizing the community. Although Ruth’s narrative moves briskly enough most of the time, her prose lacks the flash that might have diverted readers from the story’s more clichéd elements. Even the most promising subplot, of the town doctor flashing back to his shady, gangster-laden past, though adding a welcome dose of urban grit, never quite attains the silver-screen lucidity it strives for.

Smoke takes the elements of a great novel – vivid people, vital setting, high-stakes conflict – and combines them with rather too straight a face, resulting in a work that eventually feels bulkier than it actually is as it lurches under the weight of its own earnestness