The new novel by B.C. author Eden Robinson is the second in a planned trilogy and the follow-up to Son of a Trickster, which landed on last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist.
Son of a Trickster was an odd mash-up of YA tropes (i.e., weird kid with a messed-up life finds out he’s got magical powers and that his world is not quite what it seems), Indigenous myths, and vintage Robinsonian skid-lit. It told the story of Jared, a smart but troubled teen living in small-town B.C. with his single mom, who happens to be both a powerful spell-caster and a very angry alcoholic. His father is Wee’git, a nasty trickster spirit who has reportedly fathered more than 500 kids.
That book’s essentially realistic depiction of Jared’s difficult home life and struggles to stay afloat and sane did not always mesh well with the sudden forays into more supernatural territory. Both aspects of the novel were engaging, but the pacing was wildly uneven, as was the tone: just as we got used to the horrors and weirdness of, say, a brutal attack by a group of vengeful, man-eating river otters, the story would veer back into something that felt like YA for grown-ups, complete with dialogue that would’ve been at home in a quirky coming-of-age film.
Trickster Drift begins with Jared, sober and committed to avoiding his family’s magical legacy as best he can, on his way to Vancouver to attend university. After bouncing around the city for a while, he ends up with his aunt Mave, a bright and bubbly novelist who is mostly ignorant of the whole trickster thing, despite the fact that her apartment is filled with multiple spirits and ghosts, including one who loves sci-fi and is addicted to Doctor Who.
Jared turns out to be an okay student and is able to maintain his sobriety. He attends an AA meeting in almost every chapter and shows himself to be a fairly decent guy who manages to navigate the many stresses and temptations that dog him. He cooks for Mave, babysits for the neighbours, and attempts to help out other young alcoholics. For a long time, the most magical thing he does is assemble multiple items of Ikea furniture for his aunt.
Though things appear to be going well for Jared, his life is constantly disturbed by ripples from the events of the previous book – the worst being the reappearance of David, one of his mom’s awful ex-boyfriends, who in the first book hurts Jared so badly his mother retaliates by nail-gunning David’s feet to the floor. In the new novel, David stalks Jared, at first sending him threatening messages or photos, then going so far as to almost run the teen over in his car.
David’s emergence as a central villain in Jared’s life highlights a key problem with Trickster Drift. David was a minor character in Son of a Trickster; the nail-gun incident happens in a flashback early on, after which he mostly drops out of view. In the new book, he becomes a little like the T-1000 in Terminator 2: a relentless, robotic pursuer whose motivations are simple and who always seems to be right behind our hero. Meanwhile, Jared’s sometime girlfriend, Sarah, a more significant character from the first book, is mostly absent. Even David gets forgotten for long stretches of Trickster Drift – the book has trouble deciding who we are supposed to be focusing on and spends a lot of time on characters who turn out to be peripheral. When the climactic showdown between Jared and David finally occurs, it is both messily violent and satisfying, but it’s hard to see how, exactly, we got there.
In that final encounter, Jared is forced, in a visceral way, to confront the things he’s been avoiding – alcohol, magic, and his past – and the manner in which he escapes is genuinely thrilling, as well as a great set-up for the trilogy’s final part. But the preceding 300 pages of Jared’s day-to-day life feel repetitive and heavily cuttable in comparison. Robinson appears to be employing a similar approach to Peter Jackson in his film version of The Hobbit: stretching a single novel’s worth of story over three heavily padded instalments.
As with the first book, Trickster Drift is most memorable for its set pieces. There is a great early scene in which Jared goes to visit an untrustworthy aunt. There he meets numerous other offspring of Wee’git, including a guy named Bob who, hilariously, hopes this odd paternity will help him get a status card. Jared barely gets a chance to enjoy a burger before a few of the guests start peeling off their skin to reveal that they are wolves. The mix of sharp comedy, quick character sketches, and unsettling horror is note-perfect and is replicated in a number of other scenes, but their edges get dulled by the surrounding narrative drift.