Newfoundland novelist, playwright, actor, and musician Joel Thomas Hynes has developed one of the most distinctive and recognizable voices in the Canadian literary canon. This is both a blessing and a curse. The novels Down to the Dirt and Right Away Monday displayed an author honing his particular approach: a dialect-driven dissection of unreconstructed masculinity (a subject Hynes has also addressed in his acclaimed non-fiction volume, Straight Razor Days). His dramatic work – both as an actor and a playwright – has lent him an ear for colloquial rhythm and vernacular that is virtually unimpeachable: when he clicks into a groove he can execute whole page-long paragraphs that read like fluid stage monologues.
But, his retreat to similar characters and situations runs the risk of appearing like a retread: Johnny Keough, the hardened, violent tough from the skids who serves as the central character of Hynes’s latest novel closely resembles earlier Hynes protagonists Keith Kavanagh and Clayton Reid, and the booze-and-drug ridden Newfoundland milieu feels likewise old hat for the author.
It’s almost as if Hynes himself recognizes this, and makes an attempt at a course correction: about halfway through We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night, Hynes breaks free of his traditional Newfoundland setting and sends his character on a freewheeling trip across the country with the urn containing his dead girlfriend’s ashes.
The second half of the book becomes a rowdy, rollicking picaresque as Johnny tries to make his way to Vancouver’s Jericho Beach to scatter the ashes; the narrative impulse recalls a movie producer’s note to a playwright to “open up” a screenplay by allowing different settings and locales. This opening up offers the reader a kind of looseness and expansiveness that is absent from the earlier work, though the author retains his fidelity to the modulations and vicissitudes of his antihero’s idiosyncratic and individual voice.
Johnny is a luckless loser up on charges of assaulting his girlfriend, Madonna, with a teapot. (Johnny claims self-defence, saying “she made a run at” him; the bruises on her breasts and hips that the Crown claim as evidence of assault Johnny puts down to consensual rough sex.) Before she can appear in court to testify against him, Madonna overdoses on drugs supplied by Shiner, the local dealer, and Johnny finds himself unexpectedly free. Despondent at having lost the one woman who offered him a stabilizing influence (another repeated trope in Hynes’s novels), he decides to take off across Canada to dump her ashes in one of her favourite spots – a Vancouver beach, the name of which he can’t quite recall (“Something
The picture of Canada Hynes paints could not be considered tourist-board approved. The rundown, decrepit landscape Johnny traverses bears more in common with Norman Levine’s jaundiced vision of the country in his anti-travelogue Canada Made Me: “Rickety truck stops and greying family diners, rust-streaked gas pumps and ramshackle vegetable stalls and crumbling miniature golf courses, deserted campgrounds and boarded up information booths and desolate little wooden churches.” The exterior environs Johnny travels through serve as a kind of dilapidated objective correlative for his interior makeup.
This is of a piece with the character’s existential pose in the novel. Johnny is long-suffering, and in many ways the author of his own misfortune, but he maintains a resilient and unsentimental attitude toward life: “You learn to go without,” he reasons. “You learn to stitch up your own cuts and clean your own wounds. And you dont go out into the world pining for something you never had in the first place.” Nor does he have much time for God, other than to pray for delivery on the night before his court date. “An eye for a fucken eye … that’s about as much religion and God as I can suffer, man.”
Hynes burdens his protagonist with a cascading series of trials and traumas – a biological father locked up in a Kingston jail for a crime Johnny believes he didn’t commit; a cousin who killed himself by blowing off half his head with a shotgun; a woman he knew in childhood as a sister who turns out to be something else altogether. If this is all laid on a bit thick, it’s nevertheless little wonder that Johnny would retreat into the safety of repudiation and disavowal, which he concocts as a pallid and ineffective defence mechanism: “You come into the world freezing and fucked and alone and why should any of us expect to go out any different?”
In many ways, We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night is an attempt to answer that question. Johnny is constantly riled by the fact that people remember his crimes and assaults, but fail to mention his perceived heroism – saving an elderly couple from a house fire (he was robbing the house at the time). His mission to transport Madonna’s ashes to Jericho Beach – finding time to stop in Kingston along the way to confront his father – becomes a journey of redemption and discovery that belies the overwrought machismo of his loner pose.
This is familiar territory for Hynes, and he takes the reader to some dark places, infused with a strain of black humour. (The acid test in this regard involves an ill-fated encounter in a roadside motel’s hot tub, during which our hapless antihero gives himself an unintentional enema with one of the water jets.) Aficionados of Hynes’s unsentimental attitude and scabrous approach to character and language may not find the familiarity anything to complain about. “Consistency, that’s the rule, that’s the law,” Johnny thinks. “Always, always give em hell.”