Joel Thomas Hynes’s Governor-General’s Award-winning novel was by far the wildest literary ride I’ve been on so far in 2018. I started the book with a healthy dose of skepticism. There’s no doubt Hynes is a great writer; one of the best contemporary Canadian writers we have today. I enjoyed his first novel, Down to the Dirt, and liked the follow up Right Away Monday, although I felt that it was a bit of a repeat in that while the plot was different, the main character seemed essentially the same person.
Not that there’s anything wrong with an author finding the thing they do well and doing it in different books. I do that myself; I can see certain tricks and tropes that come up over and over in my own work, and I see it in the work of others. It may seem a little more ubiquitous in Hynes’ case simply because he is an actor as well, and the character who appears in his books is also pretty much the same character he always plays on-screen –whether the show he’s appearing in is set in contemporary St. John’s or Toronto or back in the 17th century, it’s always the same sleazy little street-smart tough guy. So when I heard he had a new book out and that the blurb for it began: “Scrappy tough guy and three-time loser Johnny Keough is going a little stir-crazy awaiting trial for an alleged assault charge ….” my immediate thought was: is this the same JTH story once more, only going across Canada this time?
Well, yes and no. Johnny Keough is recognizably cut from the same cloth as Keith Kavanagh, Clayton Reid, and every character Hynes has ever played on your TV screen (and the character he’s going to play in the upcoming series Little Dog). But the depths to which Hynes takes this character, and the dexterity with which he brings Johnny to life, is a staggering achievement. It’s not often I read the Governor-General’s award-winning novel and think, “Yes, this probably IS the best book published in the country this year,” but I felt that (and so many other things) after reading We’ll All Be Burnt in our Beds Some Night.
Johnny is already a hardened veteran of the prison system in his early twenties, when a lucky/unlucky break (the only kind he ever gets) gets him off a charge that might have ended up with him doing federal time. Grief-stricken at the death of his ex-girlfriend and ready to make a change, Johnny sets off on a cross-country odyssey to scatter her ashes on a Vancouver beach back where she came from. The story of Johnny’s past life unfolds in flashback scenes of memory — out of chronological order, pieces of the story gradually revealed — as the motion of his cross-country hitchhiking journey propels him forward.
And that past is horrific. Johnny has grown up amidst every imaginable kind of hardship that a young person in late 20th, early 21st century Newfoundland could experience. While it’s undeniable that Johnny makes absolutely terrible choices over and over again, it’s no trouble to see why he does so. There is no easy trope here about a character who “overcomes” or “rises above” a terrible start in life: Johnny gets a terrible start and spins it into a terrible life. He’s smart; he’s wickedly funny; he’s also stupid (in important ways) and cruel at times; he’s completely incapable of making good decisions.
Warning before you go any further: this book is not a good choice for anyone who doesn’t like strong language or graphic content. I don’t mean just the near-constant swearing and the sex scenes: people who’ve read the book will need only a passing reference to the hot tub scene to agree that those who like their books a bit cleaner and less scatalogical will find parts of this novel stomach-churning, and would be better off reading someone else. That said, if you can bring yourself to enter Johnny’s world, you won’t soon forget it.
There is so much I could say about this book, including how much sleep I lost on the night I thought I was only going to read a few more chapters and ended up staying awake because I had to finish it. But I’ll restrain myself to point out just two elements that make it prizeworthy: one stylistic and one thematic.
The stylistic point has to do with point of view, which is handled more skilfully in this book than in almost any other I can think of. The point of view is Johnny’s, and we are almost claustrophobically close to his thoughts — to the extent that the novel is almost a long dramatic monologue. The point of view starts as limited third-person — the main character marked as “Johnny” and “he” — but slips into first-person often enough to give the reader the feeling that the narrator is Johnny trying to put a little third-person distance between himself and his own life, but not always managing to do it. He even slips occasionally into second-person, describing Johnny’s experiences as happening to “you” and forcing the reader to imagine what it might be like to walk in Johnny’s thrift-store army boots. There is nothing random or accidental about these shifts in point of view: every choice feels carefully and deliberately made, and tracking the subtle changes between when Johnny describes himself as “he” and when he is “I” is a masterclass in how to handle point of view.
The other point here is thematic. As with any other novel, different readers will come away with different messages, but for me the through-line that pulled me through this novel is the idea of empathy. Early in life, Johnny is told that he’s a sociopath. He has to look that up; when he finds out that a defining characteristic of a sociopath is that he’s devoid of empathy, he has to look up “empathy” too. Johnny, a curious but utterly believable mixture of acute self-awareness and total self-blindness, doesn’t know whether or not he is capable of empathy. But as his terrible story unfolds, the reader sees that amid all his crimes and cruelties, Johnny is indeed capable of empathy, even when he doesn’t understand himself why he’s showing it. This is no easy, cheap “hard ticket with a heart of gold” cliche. The things Johnny does wrong are real and awful and not easily forgiveable. But his empathy for the people he meets along the way — even for his own victims, sometimes — is just as real. In the end, it seems the only person Johnny can’t feel empathy for is himself: maybe that’s why he cannot change.
Joel Thomas Hynes is, in some ways, the archetype of the “edgy,” iconoclastic young male writer (not as young as he used to be, I guess, like all of us, but as he’s younger than I am he still has the aura of youthful rebellion for me). Yet, oddly, when I was on the final pages of We’ll All Be Burnt, the two closest parallels I could think of among books I’d loved were both the work of middle-aged English women novelists (much more the sort of thing I usually read). As Johnny, beaten and broken in every way, stumbles toward his final destination, I was deeply reminded of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, wondering how much more suffering the author could let this character endure before the end. And when the end did come, I was left with a shattered feeling I couldn’t remember having since the end of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, a book whose ending hit me in similar places and for similar reasons. I’ve known a few Johnny Keoughs in my time, and the fictional one, like the real ones I’ve known, lingers in my mind long after he’s gone.
Because of language and subject matter, this book is definitely not for every reader — but it is a literary tour de force and a character study the like of which you will not read again soon.