Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

The Culprits

by Robert Hough

A persistent dissonance undermines and eventually scuttles The Culprits, Robert Hough’s third novel. It’s the story of three radically different characters whose lives are eventually bound by an act of misguided and fanatical violence.

The dissonance begins with the introduction of the novel’s narrator, who is telling the story to his unborn sister, currently in utero after the coupling of Hank, a bored Toronto office worker, and his Internet mail-order bride from Russia, Anya. The narrator hints that, although he and his unborn sister share the same mother, Anya, his father is the novel’s third protagonist, Ruslan, Anya’s on-again off-again Dagistani lover back in St. Petersburg.

From the opening paragraph, the narrator forces himself on the reader with an exhausting mixture of mostly flat comic hyperbole, supernatural omniscience, carnivalesque similes, and a tall-tale bravado already long exhausted by Latin American and Indian magic realists. We are introduced to Hank, whose job is so boring that “time flow[s] like sludge through a gummed-up egg timer.” Sludge would have been enough to evoke the slow passing of time – gumming up an egg timer seems superfluous. Later, Hank boards a TTC bus that gives off the odour of a “poorly kept barnyard,” and then is pushed in front of a subway train by a crazed street person who “pitch[es] forward like a steroidal rhino.”

When Hank finds himself drugged on painkillers in the hospital the next day, his foot badly broken (he was rescued before the train hit him), a water stain on the ceiling first “bubble[s] like mercury,” then later “writhe[s] like Salome.” Not only are these similes overstated and not particularly accurate – Salome’s dance was irresistibly alluring and sexual, hardly the attributes of a water stain – they feel especially out of place in both the drab, orderly streets of Toronto and the novel’s later sections, set amid the depressing cityscapes of post-Soviet Russia.

For all of the details he piles on the reader, Hough, who lives in Toronto, seems strangely unfamiliar with the workings of his home city. Hank spends more than a week in a downtown hospital getting treated for his broken foot, when the fact is that anything less than major surgery or life-threatening injuries usually earns a patient no more than a one-night stay on a crowded ward. Later, Hank manages to buy a house right in the middle of the city – where the most run-down bungalow currently costs well over $200,000 – on a low-skilled office-worker’s wages.

Perhaps Hough is more comfortable shaping his landscapes from less-familiar settings. It certainly seems so, as the scenes in Russia bristle with a sense of urgency and sensual detail missing from the Toronto sections. This is especially true when the story focuses on Ruslan, who was forced to flee to St. Petersburg when violence spilled into his home city from neigbouring Chechnya.

In Russia, Ruslan enjoys a life of hashish-dulled languor, delivering flowers by day and spending his nights with pretty Russian girls like Anya, who can’t resist his dark and exotic good looks. But after Ruslan casually breaks the heart of Anya, who heads to Canada to begin her liaison with Hank, his life takes a turn for the truly horrible. Chechen rebels are massacred after taking over a Moscow school, making every dark-skinned person a potential terrorist, and soon Ruslan is pulled over by bullying officers.

The scene of Ruslan’s arrest is a well-crafted set piece filled with tension and bleak comedy. Ruslan is initially contemptuous of the officers, whom he compares to sheep: “so so Russian, from his dart-tip nose to his beady mole eyes to the hair gooped back off a long pimply forehead.” This is good, but it gets even better: “To show that he wasn’t a sheep through and through – that he hadn’t been totally co-opted by a life of bribe-taking – the officer wore two rings in his right ear, like an E-swallowing kid….” It’s as if a different writer is at work here, one with a finer sense of drama, detail, character, and imagery.

Ruslan’s bravado turns to horror when the officers drive him to a Stalinesque security camp, where he is brutally tortured by a psychotic interrogator who loves Sylvester Stallone. After the security forces leave Ruslan for dead near his uncle’s house, he is taken in by a cell of Muslim radicals, who contact Anya in Canada, demanding a ransom for his release – a ransom she pays with Hank’s help.

Unfortunately, the various storylines never form a coherent narrative stream, in spite of the narrator’s insistence that all the characters are culprits in the terrorist act that ends the novel. Hank, especially, remains a mostly clueless cipher throughout, leaving the reader wondering why the whole novel didn’t take place in the ideologically blighted streets of glasnost Russia.