you could believe in nothing is the story of a St. John’s man named Derek, still young but on the slippery slope towards middle age, who has an uninspiring job (so uninspiring I can’t remember if we even find out what it is), a complicated relationship with his father, a girlfriend who’s gone to Ottawa, and a habit (you couldn’t call it a passion) of playing recreational hockey with a bunch of other guys. Oh, and a frequent need to adjust, check, or otherwise talk about his testicles.
I’ve seen this debut novel critiqued for being “about nothing,” but I don’t think that’s a problem, really. You can write a fascinating book with very little plot if you have brilliant language and compelling characters. Fitzpatrick uses language very deftly and creates an absolutely believable picture of contemporary urban St. John’s. The missing piece here, for me, is not plot but character. I think Derek is probably depicted in as believable and realistic a way as are as his street and the various rinks where he plays hockey — I was just never sure I wanted to be spending time with him, much less in his head.
Ironically, at one point in the novel Derek judges a woman he meets as the kind of person who appears to have absolutely no inner life. Ironic, since Derek himself seems to have no perceptible inner life, despite the fact that the entire novel focuses on his thoughts and reactions to things. I’m not sure if the irony is intentional, but the problem at the core of this novel — the only problem I had with it, really, since it’s very well-written and brings its setting to life so beautifully — is that its main character is so shallow and uninteresting that I couldn’t find it in my heart to care very much about his family, his love life, or even his testicles (though they certainly got enough page space). I know that there are people whose lives are dull, uninspired, and entirely without passion either negative or positive — people who, in fact, believe in nothing — but should there be books about them? Especially if the payoff is that there’s no change, no forward movement, no sense that anything has been learned or gained or lost?
I don’t know. I don’t want to be petty here, because this is a very well-done book and I love how the details of setting have been brought to life. I found myself engaged with it at points, but in the end it was, really, a bit like watching a hockey game through that scratchy, smudged plexiglass mounted on the boards in some rinks — I felt distanced from what was happening, unable to be touched or feel any lasting impact. Jamie Fitzpatrick is undoubtedly a good writer, but I wish he’d created a more compelling main character. Or perhaps — given the fact that everything in literature is so subjective — I just wish he’d created a character that I felt more able to connect with. Another reader might be completely captivated by Derek’s story, and any reader should admire what Fitzpatrick does well — picks up on tiny authentic nuances of setting and dialogue to bring the story’s setting vividly to life.