Giller Longlist: We’ll All Be Burnt In Our Beds Some Night by Joel Thomas Hynes

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

Further Reading:

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.

Interview in The Star: Newfoundland and Joel Thomas Hynes: writing about a place he loves

“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.


45 thoughts on “Giller Longlist: We’ll All Be Burnt In Our Beds Some Night by Joel Thomas Hynes

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    This sounds like the kind of book it takes you a while to get into the rhythm of, but once you do the voice is pretty unforgettable. I read a collection of short stories all from the perspective of prisoners earlier this year, and would be interested to read this as a follow-up. (If it ever makes it to the UK, that is!) You can’t beat that title.

    • Naomi says:

      Ha! To be fair to him, he does also read fiction – from the quote I pulled out it wouldn’t seem that way, though.
      He struggled with the fact that he *thought* he didn’t have any empathy. But I beg to differ. It would make a good discussion, I think.

  2. roughghosts says:

    This book does sound intriguing. Although it didn’t make the cut for the Giller, it is on the list for the Governor General’s Awards. That line up really interests me this year, especially because translated literature receives special attention.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, thank you, I forgot to mention that! The line-up looks great this year, doesn’t it? (Although, I always think it does.) Have you read any of the translated books on the list this year? I haven’t heard much about them.

      • roughghosts says:

        Brothers by David Clerson is an absolute must read. One of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s a dark little fable. Many bloggers outside of Canada have reviewed it but I don’t know how much attention it has had here. I hope to catch up with some of the other titles, I am familiar with most of them and know at least one of the translators.

  3. kimbofo says:

    I like the sound of this one. Sounds vaguely similar to Get Me Out of Here by Henry Sutton, a black comedy narrated by an outrageous bad boy narrator which I loved when I read it several years ago now.

  4. theresakishkan says:

    I look forward to reading this novel. His novella Say Nothing Saw Wood was harrowing but so well-written and carefully constructed that I want to read everything he’s written.

  5. priscilla says:

    This sounds great. I love the character’s voice. Seems like it’s not widely available here, though. Hopefully the Giller nomination will help rectify that!

  6. The Cue Card says:

    I’m not sure I’d like Johnny and all the profanity but maybe I should give him a chance? I just heard Michael Redhill do a reading here at the book festival and I plan to hear Ed O’Loughlin on Saturday. Looking forward to him. Cheers.

      • The Cue Card says:

        His story seems a bit hard to follow — but I like the sounds of the synopsis of it. Will you be able to get thru it?

      • Naomi says:

        I finished it on the weekend. There were parts I loved and parts I found challenging. In a nutshell I’d say read it if you like reading about polar explorers, but skip it if you don’t.

    • Naomi says:

      You’re not crazy! The narration flips back and forth between first and thrid person. It’s a little jarring at first, but I quickly got used to it.

  7. buriedinprint says:

    All of the quotes you marked are in my notebook too. But in some ways I just wanted to spill the whole book onto the page in my notebook because it all feels so Johnny. What an incredible voice. I could totally imagine the author reading from the work: I’m sure it’s quite a performance. What I most appreciated about it was the transition from disengagement/disinterest to compassion; even a couple of chapters in, I was beginning to care about him, all messed up and nowhere to go. Do you feel like it’s a challenging book to recommend though?

    • Naomi says:

      It is challenging to recommend! There are some people who probably wouldn’t make it past the first few pages. But it’s too bad, ’cause they’d be missing the whole point.

      I really loved the section near the end where he’s at the pharmacy and then a little later when he seems to be losing his marbles, thinking about Bigfoot, etc. I would love to have quoted so, so much of it!

      • buriedinprint says:

        Definitely! I wanted to include bits that also revealed his connections to people, too. But they sounded false out of context. This story actually made me want a little more from the novella we’ve both read, too; as though the complexity in that character (did we know his name?) didn’t have the same opportunities that Johnny had on the page. But of course that’s not fair, because that story was complete…it’s only that I wanted “more”.

      • Naomi says:

        I have that problem a lot – wanting to include things but having them not nearly as meaningful written out in a spoiler-free review.

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