Project Bookmark Canada: The City Still Breathing by Matthew Heiti

The 20th Bookmark on the CanLit Trail is going to be from The City Still Breathing by Matthew Heiti. It will be unveiled on May 3, 2018 at 4pm at the Townehouse Tavern in Sudbury, and will be the first Bookmark in Northern Ontario. If you’re in the area, be sure to check it out!

If not for Project Book Canada this book would probably have passed me by. (Which would have been a shame.)

From the premise on the back of the book, I had it in my mind that it was going to be some kind of a caper through a city inhabited by a bunch of quirky characters.

A body is found on the side of a highway. Naked, throat slashed, no identification. It disappears from the back of a police van and begins a strange odyssey, making its way, over the course of one early winter night, all around the northern town of Sudbury and through the lives and dreams of eleven very different people. (Goodreads)

It turns out that the characters are more abject than quirky, and I found the story darker and more rewarding than I was expecting.

Slim thinks it would be funny to steal a dead body out of the back of a police van, unaware of the chain of events it would set off. His friend, Heck, thinks it’s funny too until he gets a look at it and loses his lunch. Slim’s girlfriend, Francie, doesn’t think it’s funny at all. Especially since she and Slim were meant to be leaving this dreary and dying city for Toronto the morning he pulled this stunt.

It’s just about being seen. More than Dad peering over his paper to say Good Morning, or Mom pretending to care when she says, How was your day, honey, or your friends looking straight through you to see only what you can give them. It would just be nice to be seen, all of her, like Slim used to see her through his camera. But that dead look on that dead body is the dead look you get everywhere. The dead look even on Slim’s face these days. It’s only a matter of time before someone else drags you down.

All that grey it’s a wonder the city doesn’t just puke it all up. A big wave right down Highway 69, the Dart riding the front of it all the way to Toronto. All of it giving over to the colour of Yonge Street, the spinning neon of Sam the Record Man, the grey in her sucked out just like that.

A rumour gets around that a dead body has been stolen, and Milly wonders if it could be his brother who has been missing for a few days. Milly, a man who strikes terror into many a soul, loved his brother passionately and would do anything to get him back.

In the meantime, two young kids, Elwy and Emilia, hear about the body and get into a canoe to search for it.

They got to find him, not because of any reward or for anybody’s dad or mom, they got to find him because he’s all alonely out here. He’s got no name and nobody’s missing him and that’s just, that’s just a Hell of a Thing.

Then there’s Gordon “The Python” Uranium, a washed-up hockey star who was attacked and had his boots stolen by some punk with a gold watch. (Hadn’t Francie noticed that Slim had on a new pair of boots that morning?) And Slim’s mother, Martha, a single mother, trying to make ends meet while hoping her son is staying out of trouble.

And she goes quickly this time, a quick break to the doors, back home to get ready for work, waiting tables, waiting for the shift to end, waiting in bed for the sound of the door opening, waiting to hear her son come in, or waiting not to hear anything.

For me, the best part of the book is how it all comes together at the end; tense and emotional. As I was wondering how everything was going to play out, I realized that despite the unlikeability of these characters, I cared about them. They all just got a bum deal in life, and I wanted them to get another chance.

I also realized that the story isn’t really about any one of these characters, but about how they’re all stuck (even the kids – their canoe adventure an attempt to shake things up) – they’re stuck in a place or position that they hate but that has some kind of hold on them at the same time. The kind of place that, even if you manage to leave for a while, will eventually suck you back in.

Slim staying on his back, trying to let it all sink in. Let the whole day sink in and all the f*ckin ifs of it, him and all that weight just sink through the snow, the earth, and keep on sinking. But he’s like Lee Marvin in a bare-knuckle fight, he has to get up because surrendering just isn’t in him.

There is one character, Normando, who occupies the chapters in between the main telling of the story, just like he occupies the city in between the other occupants. He’s part of the city, always there in the background with his popcorn cart. But not even Normando can play his part forever. When he’s gone, will anyone notice? Will someone take his place? Will something change? Or will the city go on as though he was never there?

But in the quiet up here, Normando can see the whole town shiver like a bellows. That smelter sputtering smoke like a deathbed cigarette. Staggering on. Making it to another morning. The city breathes them in and it lets them out.

I have never been to Sudbury (although I have heard Tom sing about it many times), but I imagine those who have will recognize the city well in Heiti’s book. The city is a character all its own.

Nothing ever changes. Same potholes, same burnt-out street lights, same graffitied brick, same sad-faced businessmen, same whores on Elgin, same Normando pushing that same cart same time every morning heading for the same corner. Nothing changes. He’s only been in the city for an hour and already he feels it leaning in on him from all corners like it always did, and he just wants to be free of it. The city, yeah, but all the rest too.


16 thoughts on “Project Bookmark Canada: The City Still Breathing by Matthew Heiti

    • Naomi says:

      I belong to the Halifax Reading Circle where we have been reading and discussing books that we think have potential for a Bookmark. The group is relatively new and the process takes time, so our suggestions haven’t come to anything yet, but we are optimistic. And, in the meantime, it’s fun! 🙂

  1. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis says:

    How is it I had missed hearing about this Project Bookmark Canada?

    I’ve been to Sudbury, but not really – that is, we visited Science North several years ago and that was the extent of our interaction with the city. I shall have to acquainted through the pages of this book!

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t think you’re alone – Project Bookmark Canada is still relatively unknown, but gaining some ground lately I think. I’m hoping my reading project will shed a little more light – every bit helps!

  2. annelogan17 says:

    Oh I’ve visited Sudbury once in my life, as a kid, to go to the science museum up there so unfortunately I wouldn’t recognize much in this book. That being said, this sounds like a fun read, kind of reminds me of some of the ‘gritty’ rural lit that has been coming up of late, although this isn’t so rural…

    • Naomi says:

      It is very much like the gritty rural lit. It also reminded me of the books I’ve read set in Thunder Bay – small(ish) cities built up around mining, dismal but with a strong sense of place.

    • Naomi says:

      On the website there’s a place where anyone can send in suggestions for possible Bookmark passages. The passages must be fiction or poetry, and they must contain a clear indication of a real place. For example, the real street names and business names are used in The City Still Breathing. From the site: “The reader must be able to stand in the place where the characters or narrators stand in the story, and relate to the passage.”
      The passages are then reviewed by the National Bookmark Advisory Committee, made up of representatives from publishing and literary communities and industries. Their suggestions are then passed on to the Board.
      For more details…

    • Naomi says:

      I’m hoping that by the time all my kids have flown the nest there will be a few in every province so I can plan my route across Canada! 🙂

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