Down to the Dirt, by Joel Hynes

It’s impossible to overemphasize the acclaim and hype that surrounded Joel Hynes’ first novel, Down to the Dirt, here in the Newfoundland literary community (for more on the incestuous politics of literary communities and the nasty emotions they breed, see my next review).  This brash bad-boy novel has such a tang of raw, honest firsthand experience that some people have suggested it should have been a memoir instead.  Fortunately, Joel Hynes is a little smarter than James Frey — he calls his books novels, which leaves him free to embellish incidents and characdter as he wishes while still drawing from the deep well of personal experience.  And the water he draws from there is brackish and dirty, to be sure, but also bracing and strangely refreshing — at least in small doses.

What Hynes does best is voice — particularly the voice of Down to the Dirt‘s main character, Keith Kavanagh.  It should come as no surprise to learn that Down to the Dirt was a play before it was a novel (it’s a movie too, now), or that Hynes shines at readings, because his ability to capture the voice of a nihilistic, narcissistic, self-destructive young male transplanted from a Southern Shore outport to downtown St. John’s, is flawless.  Keith’s inner and outer worlds of alcoholism, drugs, sex, and despair are completely believable, and the book ends with only the faintest hint of a hope for redemption, enough to keep the reader from running out and slitting her wrists but not enough to suggest that “happily ever after” is anywhere on Keith’s horizon.

The only false steps in the novel, I think, come in the occasional chapters where the point of view shifts to Keith’s girlfriend Natasha or his best friend Andy.  Neither voice is as convincing as Keith’s, and I was so caught up in Keith’s narrative that the change in point of view took me off guard and annoyed me — I wanted to get back to Keith.

I read Hynes’ second novel, Right Away Monday, immediately after Down to the Dirt, which in retrospect was probably a mistake.  It’s set in the same world of seedy downtown bars populated by artists, addicts and losers, but this time the main character is Clayton Reid.  Clayton comes from the Southern Shore — like Keith Kavanagh — and is an alcoholic and drug user with vague hopes of a career in the arts but too little focus or direction to pursue it — also like Keith.  He is profane, witty, depressed, self-destructive, and doomed to a string of unsatisfying sexual liasons with various women as doomed as he is.  Just like Keith Kavanagh.  In fact, the great weakness of Right Away Monday is that if you make the mistake of reading it right after Down to the Dirt, you may come away feeling as if you’ve read the same story twice.

Clayton’s voice is just as strong and well-rendered as Keith’s is, and it is exactly the same voice — down to the same turns of phrase and the same dialect.  In Right Away Monday, too, we get occasional slips into the point of view of other characters, and as in Down to the Dirt, these are never as successful, but serve only to distract from the power of Clayton’s monologue.  The only real innovation in Right Away Monday is the introduction of Clayton’s uncle Valentine Reid, a famous, celebrated, and horrifically screwed-up Newfoundland singer-songwriter (I’m usually the last to catch on to in-group literary gossip, etc., but even I would have to have been comatose to have lived here all my life and not caught the clef to this particular roman — once again, Hynes is obviously making good use of personal experience, and once again it’s a good thing he chooses to label his work as “novel” rather than the memoir he could just as easily have called it).

If anything, Right Away Monday may be an even stronger novel than Down to the Dirt, but it’s inevitable that it will suffer by comparison to Hynes’ first book, not because the author has gone into a “sophomore slump” and failed to maintain his quality but because readers may feel (at least, I did) as if Hynes has only one story to tell, one voice to speak with, and wonder whether he plans to tell that same story in that same voice over and over.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing for a writer to go back and plow the same ground over and over — but the reader hopes that he will bring forth something new each time, and I’m not convinced Hynes did that in Right Away Monday.

If you dislike profanity, drug use and sex in novels, please do yourself a favour and avoid Joel Hynes’ books like the plague.  If you don’t mind those things, and you like to hear a dark story told in a strong and compelling voice, then by all means read one or the other of Down to the Dirt or Right Away Monday.  But don’t read both — at least, not back to back.  Choose one, read it, admire Joel Hynes’ skill, and then sit back and hope he has the ability to surprise us with his third book.



Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author

32 responses to “Down to the Dirt, by Joel Hynes

  1. Down to the Dirt was also recorded as an unabridged audio edition. Narrated by Joel, Sherry White and Jonny Harris the audio edition is rarely mentioned when people list the various forms that Down to the Dirt is available in despite the face that most who have heard it say it’s even better heard than read.

    The Audio edition of Down to the Dirt is available from Rattling Books:

  2. Thanks for that Janet — I did mention the play and the movie and not the audiobook. I think this one book that would work really well listening to as an audiobook because of the strength of Joel’s voice (and I probably would like the other voices better if they were read by other readers).

  3. Just wanted to note that I deleted a comment by “Veronica,” not because it was critical of me or my writing, but because it contained some comments some might find offensive. Veronica would like you all to know that I am an amateur and a mediocre writer. (She also thinks I’m “blissfully unaware” of my own mediocrity, which possibly shows that she doesn’t read this blog or Hypergraffiti much, or she’d know that my own mediocrity is something I struggle with and agonize about constantly, with varying degrees of bliss). Also, Veronica’s husband once fell asleep at a reading of mine — which is fair game; I’ve nodded off myself at a few readings when the author was boring or the book not to my taste (and to be fair to Joel Hynes, that certainly has never happened to me at one of his readings!)

    After telling me this, Veronica went on to share far more than I’d like to know about things she and her husband do in their private time. I wasn’t sure you all needed to know that much about her either, so I deleted the comment as I do try to keep the blog more or less PG.

    I assume from this comment that Veronica didn’t agree with my critique of Joel Hynes’ books, although it might have been more helpful if she had discussed the books rather than simply sharing personal details.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting Veronica, and anytime you’d like to comment on or disagree with one of my book reviews without including salacious remarks, please feel free to comment again. Sorry I had to delete — I think this is the first time I’ve had to do that to a non-spam comment.

  4. Chris (Mombie)

    Oh, I LOVE when comments are sprinkled with irrelevant personal details! And I especially love when people’s comments reveal more about them than about the entry they are supposedly commenting on.

    Trudy, you are anything but mediocre. The way you describe the material life of your characters is astounding. You create a vivid snapshot of a given moment, a skill many writers lack. Lots of people can tell a story, but few make the reader feel that they have lived with the characters for the length of the book.

    And, more importantly, you are a writer who is actually WRITING all the time. You aren’t awaiting the muse, or whining about not being able to write. You are putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) on a regular basis, which puts you ahead of about 3/4 of the people (myself included) who call themselves writers but, who, in fact, do very little writing.

    So to Veronica, whoever you are, Trudy’s writing may not be to your taste, or your husband’s taste, but at least she’s working on it all the time and the stories she tells are vast and varied. I think it is decidedly odd that you would post a comment so off-colour that Trudy wouldn’t post it. Perhaps you could see your way clear to commenting directly on her work or on the review at hand?

  5. Jennifer

    I thought your review of Joel’s book sounded very positive. If the majority of a crit is good that’s great–but there’s still bound to be something the critic doesn’t like, that’s life. Veronica obviously doesn’t get it, like Christine, I’d like to hear what she thought of the book. (Not that she’s reading this!)

  6. Jennifer

    Oh, Trudy, can you change “Christine” to Chris (Mombie) so it’s not so obvious that we are all from the same clubhouse?

  7. I dunno, I kind of like the idea of calling out my posse to back me up. I wonder if Veronica is part of Joel’s posse? (although, I really can’t see why she’d be upset if so, because I definitely did think, and say, that the books were brilliantly written).

  8. Veronica

    I don’t even know Joel Hynes. I didn’t mention anything about him. Mr. Hynes punched a crack in my husband’s windshield on Water street one night. So I couldn’t care what you write about him or his slum life. I was reading your review of skin room and clicked on a link that brought me to this page. That’s all Trudy. I don’t know why on earth you would delete my very heartfelt, human comment last week? And now all this hub-bub, all your swell Christian friends up in arms against me. That’s not really fair…

  9. Hi Veronica,

    You posted your comment as a response to Joel Hynes’ review. Not sure why it appeared here if you were trying to comment on Skin Room. Also not sure why you’d assume all my friends are Christian.

    Anyway, I loved Skin Room, and said so, so I’m also not sure why you’d take my very positive review that as an opportunity to attack me. But as I said, you’re quite welcome to your opinion that my writing is mediocre, just as I’m welcome to my opinion that Sara Tilley’s writing is brilliant. I’m all for the free exchange of ideas.

    What I’m not all for is you using my blog comments as a confessional to describe the details of your sex life. Perhaps your own blog would be a better place for that? But any time you want to discuss books, this is the place to do that, and you’re quite welcome to comment again.

  10. For the record: I’m not Christian, I’m a heathen.

  11. Thanks for clarifying that, Chris. I think some people may only be friends with those who think the same as they do, and may find it difficult to grasp that some of us have a wider range of friends.

  12. Lori

    With respect to the validity of Veronica’s comments on Trudy’s writing, I have my own, very postive view of Trudy’s skills and dedication in that regard, but they are not relevant to this discussion, and should not have been included in Veronica’s comments. Some of the most astute commentators/critics of literature are people who cannot write, but who read with an analytical and appreciative view. Trudy is well able to both read and write, and being the voracious reader that she is, I trust her commentary.

    As for Trudy rallying her “Christian friends” to her side, let me clarify a couple of things. I am a friend, but Trudy is the kind of person who appreciates people who not only will back her when she’s right, but kick her butt if she’s not. This situation being the former, warrants my supportive comment.

    Second, I am not a Christian, of Trudy’s faith or any other. I am pagan. Trudy is far too tolerant, as am I, to let our religious views get in the way of what really matters.

    I think this is a case of understanding too little and telling too much. No matter which book you thought your comment was about, your post was inappropriate at best, and signals a need to seek professional help, at worst.

    A comment on a blog feels like a place where you can say what you like without repercussion, and without impact. That isn’t the case. I suggest that Veronica be more considerate in future.

  13. Joel Thomas

    Hey Trudy, someone just brought these comments to my attention. Sorry you’ve been blindsided, but it happens all the time. I have so many anonymous stalkers out there it’s creepy. The best you can do is just delete and ignore. If you respond you’re feeding into it. Besides, without the benefit of this Veronica’s alleged comment, it looks to me like you are the one who rallied the troops. If her comment wasnt fit to read or post then why did you find reason to make a big show of it? I find that a little suspect, to be honest.
    Secondly, I just had a read of your review of some of my writing. It’s funny, but one would get the impression that we’ve met, that we must be old friends, or at the very least that I must have at some point disclosed personal information to you about the motivations behind my characters and story lines. Meaning that I dont know where you got the idea that this is autobiographical writing. It’s misleading and irresponsible of you and frankly I’m sick of people like you who obviously know absolutely nothing about my life or how I live it, but insist on tarring me with the same brush that I’ve tarred my characters with. I cant comment on your writing because I’ve never even heard of you until now, but I suggest, judging from the above combo review of my books (can you get any lazier I wonder?) that you are mostly a gossip monger. But of course if that’s not true then obviously you would delete this comment of mine and carry on without acknowledging it to your “posse”. All the best with all the rest, Joel

  14. Hi Joel,

    I guess your comment is valid. We certainly have met: you were kind enough to help me out by coming to do a reading at The Murphy Centre when some of my students were releasing a book. It meant a lot to my students — one of the young men who read at that event just said to me yesterday when we were talking about writing, “Joel Hynes said I was a good writer!” because you took the time to pay him a compliment after he read. Even though it was almost three years ago, thanks again.

    That being said, that is the only time I’ve met you, and you’re right, I certainly don’t know you well or know anything about your motivations or how autobiographical the work is. What I said in the review was, “This brash bad-boy novel has such a tang of raw, honest firsthand experience that some people have suggested it should have been a memoir instead.”

    Lots of what you write sounds autobiographical, and anyone who knows a few cursory details of your biography can see that there are some parallels between your life experience and that of your characters. I assume a lot of what you write is also fictional, but I know it can be offensive when reviewers draw attention to those parallels and dismiss fiction as purely autobiographical, and I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to do that. Whether or not there are autobiographical elements in your fiction was not the main point of my review.

    I stand by the rest of the review: I think Keith’s and Clayton’s voices are both perfectly and brilliantly rendered, those of other characters less so, and my only real critique is that the two characters and the two books are too similar (I’m sorry you consider it “lazy” to review two similar books by the same author, which I read in the same week, in a single review, but I am lazy, and also busy, and I read and review a lot of books — and in this case I specifically wanted to talk about the parallel between the two). That’s really my only criticism of your writing (which is a hell of a lot better than mine) and I’ll stand by it.

    As for me and my posse, unlike you I’m not well-known enough to have attract many stalkers. Veronica was the first person who ever put nasty personal comments on my blog so I told a small group of my best friends about it from a “isn’t this weird/funny/creepy” perspective, and three of them decided to post in response. That’s life.

    As you, Joel, didn’t share anything about your sex life in your comments (thanks) I feel no need to delete your comments, nor would I ever delete a comment in which someone was genuinely addressing my view of a book I’d reviewed, even if I vigorously disagreed. That’s the point of this site: discussion of books. Thanks for posting, and as I said in the review, you can be sure I’ll be reading your next book with interest.

  15. Val

    Every production of an artist should be the expression of an adventure of his soul.
    -W. Somerset Maugham

    Joel, your work is very good, but you know it is. When it feels more real than reality to the reader, then you’ve done your job. As Oscar once said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is NOT being talked about”.

    Trudy, I also like Rick Mercer but I consider his ranting to be more an acerbic monologue rather than true satire. Either way, it’s all fun for fun sake isn’t it?

    “Our tears tell the truth about ourselves while our laughter tells the truth about others”.

  16. Trudy… I am an occasional visitor to your other site. I subscribe to it in my RSS feed. While not everything you write about is for me, you touch a topic that strikes a chord for me frequently enough that I keep my subscription open. One thing that is clear to me is that, while you seem firmly set in your belief structure, you are open-minded enough to accept others as they are… not simply tolerate them.

    That said, you don’t have to tolerate, much less accept, any personal attack on this or any other blog you author. While Veronica’s comments may have been coarse, inappropriate, and off-topic, Joel’s were simply coarse and inappropriate. Dropping phrases like “I’m sick of people like you” and “lazy” in regards to you taking the time to review and discuss his writing was unproductive and hurtful. If that was indeed Joel who posted the comment, he should be ashamed of his reaction.

    Your blog is your place. Anyone who reads and comments is a guest. A guest who entered through an open door… sure. But that doesn’t give them the right to belittle or insult the hostess.

    Your reaction to Mr. Thomas was far more gracious than he deserved.

  17. Thanks, Steve. But while Veronica’s was a personal attack, I didn’t see Joel’s comments that way … I think most artists get defensive when their work is critiqued. It’s a truly big person who can be gracious when someone’s pointing out the shortcomings in their own work, and I’m not sure I’d do much better. (I have stumbled across blogs where people have reviewed my books, some good and some bad, but I’ve never been brave enough to leave a comment!)

  18. Geraldine Ryan-Lush

    Joel Hynes has no need to explain, or defend himself to anyone. He is multi-gifted, possessing that elusive, rare, quality, soul. His work needs to be addressed to a wider, circumspect, discriminating, intelligent, deserving audience. As an actor, he is an intense, brilliant, totally beleiva le New Millenium crop of Marlon Brando and James Dean, only better. And the autobiographical -slanted diatribes posted here re his books and writing??? COME ON!!!

  19. Thanks for your input, Geraldine, and I agree Joel has no need to defend himself. I’m not sure what in my review made you consider it a “diatribe.” I pointed out what I thought was a weakness — that the voice in the second book was very similar to the first — while recognizing that not everyone would consider that a weakness. The rest of the review was entirely positive, as I consider Joel a very gripping and talented writer. I have no idea where you got the impression that my review (which reflects nothing other than my personal opinions and impressions after reading the books) qualifies as a “diatribe” (much less as multiple “diatribes”).

  20. Geraldine Ryan-Lush

    Hi Trudy. Yes, I agree “diatribes” was probably too strong a word . I went to see “Down To The Dirt” the other night, and my comments were largely influenced by his acting in that film. I had never seen his acting before, and was struck by his raw talent. The film itself undoubtedly was graphic. I cringed more than once. The prostitute scenes were too much, offensive to most sensibilities, and the mercy killing of the cat could have been handled differently. But the film as a whole was redeemed for me by Joel’s superb acting , and his ability to transport, and transcend, the viewer to places within themselves that wants to shelter, nurture and further the perennial lost child, and his/her potential. The continuing motif of the writer by the road, for example, scribbling in his dirty scrapbooks, holding precious his bits of meaning, no doubt the only thing that ever made sense in his life. This is quite powerful, and evocative. The criminal, or accused criminal, the vagabond, fledgling, starving, writer-addicted outlaw, refused food by his parents. You are made to feel, without sentiment or pity. This is REAL acting. And when he was being almost beaten to death in Halifax, the impending destruction of the writings in his sack, the gruesome, heartless murder of a lifetime of artistic creation was as traumatic to him as the loss of his own life. As any true artist can attest. Joel Hynes is indeed a brilliant actor and writer, and I concur with my previous post, barring “diatribes” .

  21. I do want to see the movie. I heard it got some poor reviews in Toronto, which must have been disappointing for all involved, but it hasn’t diminished my desire to see it. I’m sure it won’t be an easy or “fun” movie (I didn’t consider the book easy or fun) but powerful, if it’s anything like the book.

  22. Geraldine Ryan-Lush

    I posted this review, with some minor changes, on my own newly created blog, Hope you don’t mind my mentioning that here. After intense writing for hours at comitted projects, I simply lack the energy for blogging, as much as I would love to, with all the great works being produced. Thanks!

  23. Joel Hynes

    Hey! It’s me! I’m the real Joel Hynes…

  24. J.T. Hynes

    wait a second numbskull, I’m the real Joel Hynes and I’ll bust you up if I find you

  25. Joel Thomas Hynes

    For the record, the real Joel Hynes uses his middle name, for writerly purposes. Note my login name please. That’s me.

  26. Hilarious! Battle of the Joel Thomas Hyneses!!

  27. trudyj65

    If only, if only…

  28. Trevor Rice

    Has anyone read Big White Knuckles by Brian Tucker yet? Joel gave him a great review on the back cover. An amazing book! Funny and heartbreaking.

  29. Jenny18

    I read it. Raw and funny. I was surprised by the sweetness in the book because I heard Brian Tucker is a bit of a nasty fellow in person.

  30. I haven’t heard of it, but I’ll check it out.

  31. joe belanger

    I’ve just read Hynes’ book, Down to the Dirt. Wow. I read a fair bit and have read most great authors of the world, if only to say I have (not that I necessarily enjoyed their work.) A friend just handed me Hynes’ book and said, ‘Read this.’ So, I did.
    Hynes is a truly gifted writer and, to me, one of this country’s greatest. From the gut, raw, well-defined characters, incredible dialogue, wonderful use of description . . . . what an absolute treat.
    I don’t know a thing about this guy, but his is a rare talent, not just in Canada, but the world. I can’t help but recall having the same reaction to the novels, Less Than Zero and Last Exit to Brooklyn.

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