Reviewed by Paul Duder
The back-cover blurbiage for Jerrod Edson’s second novel, The Dirty Milkman, promises a bracing stroll down the dank and gritty mean streets of Saint John, NB. (It also offers one of those tendentious McCanLit aperçus that “most Canadian writing has to do with the concerns of the middle class”, but let’s save that one for another time). And, certainly, in handing the narrative reins over to a teenaged hooker and a 30-some-odd failed writer/successful drinker, Edson has enlisted two of the more reliable and efficient signifiers of the demimonde.
But those of a sensitive constitution need not be put off, as not for Edson the back-alley gang rapes of Hubert Selby, say, nor the dead-end self-picklings of Bukowski. While those worthies offer the ennobling squalor of imposed circumstances, Milkman trades more in mild discomfiture as semi-sincere lifestyle choice; Edson serves up a light new wine for the fetid old bottles, and it has a lower alcohol content.
Charlie White published a well-received (though not well-purchased) novel while still in college, spent time in Poland working on a follow-up which didn’t materialize, and eventually slunk back homeward, to start what has grown into a five year stretch delivering milk in and around his native Saint John. (He’s “a milkman by trade, but not by choice”, the promo bumph tells us, as if there might otherwise be some ambiguity). He despairs over ever writing again, and drinks prodigiously, but otherwise is, all in all, a pretty chirpy soul, able, and inclined, to appreciate a well-turned ankle or a Saint John sunset. (For those who care about this sort of thing, Edson’s bio is not entirely dissimilar.)
Prin, who hooks up with Charlie--she calls him “Charles”--in the novel’s first scene, is 19, clear-headed, and wholly untraumatized by her career choice. Like Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places, she lives nicely, is savvy with her finances, and lays off the (other) vices. The feel-good capper is her pimp/best pal, much given to tortured musings on Prin’s inner beauty and unassailable dignity (just like, you know, pimps in real life).
One surmises that with “Prin”, and its Scarlet Letter overtones, Edson is seeking to confer an air of tragic grandeur, or some such; but, while her childhood was apparently no parade down Main Street, one hears of much worse on an average afternoon of Oprahs and Springers, so that any mantle of victimhood and moral absolution doesn’t lie comfortably on her shoulders.
Milkman unfolds on parallel tracks. The principal thread follows present-day Prin and Charlie as they stumble their way towards a sort of high school romance-manqué, the kind she never had and he likely can’t remember. Despite a greater than usual complement of barriers and misunderstandings, an endearing sense of normalcy prevails--picnics, haircuts, brunch--and, dammit, we pull for these crazy kids.
A second, retrospective track takes us through Charlie’s sojourn in Poland. From his current state, and his refusal to discuss it (despite frequent urgings from the unhappily-parochial Prin), we infer that Poland ended badly, and Edson’s managing of this creeping sense of disquiet is his most effective work. (Although, in the event, the pay-off is less than we’ve expected, and doesn’t seem enough to have so derailed him, or to have spurred the weird act of bibliocide by which he sacrificed his almost-finished second novel).
Charlie spends a lot of time thinking about the craft of writing, and he would likely approve of Edson’s efforts here. Milkman’s narrative voice is frugal and unobtrusive; not terse, a la Hemingway--freighted, heavy--but just direct and unaccoutred, almost wholly free of writerly wankery, and so immensely easy to read.
Edson is palpably jazzed about nature’s beauty and healing power--he’s obviously been particularly moved by Krakow and Saint John--such that something of an eco-theme emerges that may not have been entirely volitional. Along with the doing-not-studying, streets-not-academe line that his characters purvey at all opportunities, this overlays the proceedings with a neo-Luddite, granola-munching patina that is unforced and (you’ll forgive me) organic.
For added levity, Edson throws up some icky slapstick business--the pernicious effects of Chinese food on the digestive tract, a priest whose love for the Virgin Mary is demonstrably over-enthusiastic--that seems half-realized, as if he’s embarrassed to peddle such obvious filler.
Milkman is small--150 pages--and small-bore: at bottom, we get a girl, a milkman, some sunsets and cheap wine, and a couple of people huddling together, bucking each other up; a temporally protracted, lower-caste Before Sunrise. At the end of the day, Charlie is, perhaps, nudged out of his funk through the simple expedient of unburdening himself to Prin of some unpleasantness from his past.
As redemptions go, this seems a little too easily won, too up-with-talk-therapy. Though, that said, when Edson shoehorns in a pessimistic, capitulative coda--one of those unresolved, “hey, life’s like that” non-endings that serve more to excuse the writer than instruct the reader--it clangs a bit.
But better (and easy) to focus on Milkman’s small pleasures, and what can you do anyway? Life’s like that.
Paul Duder is a lapsed Toronto lawyer who lives in a neighbourhood without milk delivery.