When I started reading this book, I had no idea what to expect. With a title like that, and a cover that looks like the world is on fire, and almost all the praise and reviews using the word “gritty”. (“Gritty” means gross, right? Yes. And other things.) But the thing is, once I got into this book I was engrossed by the character’s struggle with himself and with everyone else he comes across, and I was in awe of the author’s skill at creating such an unpleasant, angry, abrasive character who I felt nothing but sympathy for. I wanted him to be saved. I wanted to save him.
The story starts with Johnny awaiting trial for his most recent misdeed. As the narrator of his own story he is angry at the world and and where he has found himself in it. He tells us about what’s been going on in his life, now as well as in the past. But as messed up as Johnny is (and he is really messed up), it starts to become clear to the reader that he could be even more messed up. Just don’t ask him about books…
Books? Fucken hell, Johnny ripped through thousands. Anything you needs to know about proper chain tension, fucken vapour barriers, Lee Harvey Oswald, where to eat in Manhattan. All kinds of knowledge and info logged away in the old noggin, hey Johnny. Useless, the lot of it. None of it changes nothing. None of it mends nothing. You can scour every bookshelf on the planet and you won’t come up with not one fucken phrase that chnages where you comes from or what youve been up to, been through, who you fucken are… But no, it all keeps bubbling back up, stuff that went on twenty-odd years ago, ten years, last fucken week. Old scars and open wounds. Everything always spinning in the head, bullying you to the brink of madness, stuff you cant do one fucken thing to change. It’s still there, all of it, always. And wretched fucken woe to the weak, flimsy, brittle motherfucker who wants to take a hard look at it, sort it out somehow, talk about it.
After the trial (in which Johnny gets off for reasons I won’t divulge here), he sets off on a dubious but honorable mission across the country; during which his capacity for bad luck and unfortunate circumstances are emphasized. There’s blood, drugs, uncomfortable situations, fire ants, sunburns, an accident with a moose, a run-in with his biological father, a fight with some teenage girls, and a lot of walking. During this time, our Johnny has a lot of time to think and to spout off at the world, and to try to figure out where he’s going in life. Will he be able to pull himself together to overcome all the stuff life has thrown at him, or will he just become another unknown, troublesome, invisible guy?
I don’t know b’ys and girls. I do not know.
… Johnny looks at the crooked fork on the table and wonders at how softly and quickly we’re all here on this small ball of spinning dirt, and how some of us all has it fall from the sky the moment they comes into existence and how the rest of us are sitting here, hands gripped to the lip of this greasy edge, waiting for the bottom to rise up to meet us.
Cause that’s what we are, all of us, humans. Even Johnny.
I loved Johnny. I’m glad the Giller jury decided to give him a chance.
A favourite line…
But here, Johnny’s smart enough to know that he dont know everything. But he wasnt always, smart enough to know. And it’s one thing knowing nothing, but it’s another thing altogether when you dont know that you dont know nothing.
Warning: a lot profanity and some graphic scenes
Also a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards
Review at Buried in Print: “He presents a jailbird’s heart to readers and dares them to peek inside.”
Review at the Globe & Mail: “The book’s big question is whether a brutal childhood can be undone. Johnny is an artful dodger, but he can’t flee his memories.”
Review at the Quill & Quire: “”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.”
“Cast No Shadow” movie trailer: Nominated for 4 Canadian screen awards in 2015 at the Atlantic Film Festival. Based on “Say Nothing Saw Wood”, a book by Joel Thomas Hynes. Hynes is also one of the actors (as is his son) and the director of the movie.