"Edson’s vivid portrayal of the urban area, as well as the working class and underclass, creates a vision of Saint John that highlights the discrepancy between the pre-modern idyllic notion of life in Atlantic Canada and the more complicated reality of the region."

-The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Goon in Salon Magazine's Fall Books Guide, September 4, 2010

by Mike Landry


Jerrod Edson may have said good bye to Saint John a dozen years ago, but he's never really left the Port City.

All of Edson's soon-to-be-four novels, published over the past decade, have taken place in his hometown. Recurring characters pop up from novel to novel. Edson has created his own idea of what the city is.

Starting with his first novel, The Making of Harry Cossaboom (2000), it was important for Edson to write about a real city with real places -- including his former employer, Chizzlers Restaurant.

In his latest book, The Goon, which is being published by Ottawa's Oberon Press in October, Edson even started encorporating real Saint Johners into his memories and imagined characters. Everyone he uses in the book has been notified and is content to receive a couple complimentary copies for their participation.

When he visited home to take pictures as research this past summer, his first return in five years, Edson noted to his wife that he could picture his characters walking around about him.

"The fictional characters are as real to me as a real person walking around Saint John," Edson says, by phone from his home in Mississauga. "It might not be accurate, but it works.

"You have to have that kind of belief in your characters. How's the reader going to believe in your characters if you don't?"

Edson goes so far to reinforce the legitimacy of his characters in The Goon that he even includes fictional career hockey stats for his protagonist, former NHL muscle and local senior hockey bruiser Jack Jones.

Jones, who now divides his time between working the Harbour Bridge tolls, regaling his fellow drunks at the Three Mile and caring for his aging cat, was part of the 1992 Allan Cup-winning Saint John Vito's squad. Although the places and events are real, Jones isn't.

Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, which fictionalized the lives of the immigrants who helped build Toronto, inspired Edson to slot a fictional character into a real-life event. Edson's novel-in-progress uses the narrative device even more, returning to characters he introduced in his second novel, The Dirty Milkman (Oberon, 2005).

"It's been five years since that book came out, so it's kind of fun because I'm trying to get caught up with what they've been up to."

It's fitting that Edson would choose The Goon to embrace mixing reality and fiction. The story is about two men in denial of reality. Jones lives stuck in the glory days of his past, while his homosexual neighbour continues to mourn years after the death of his partner. The pair come together to help each other down the path of redemption.

Jones and Roy were meant to be an odd couple, but Edson also wanted to play around with stereotypes. If there is a stereotype about a gay man or ignorant womanizer you can think of, Edson wanted to prove the opposite.

"That's what I like about Jack--he's such a good guy despite everything that's on the outside of him. Having Roy I tried to make the exact opposite. I didn't want to put in anything that you would assume Jack would be like towards a homosexual."

Jones also marks the return of what's becoming Edson's trademark fondness for the disappointing drunk. A big Charles Bukowski fan, Edson explains, "They're just fun characters to write. I seem to get stuck with them."

Although Edson prefers watching English football now, he was able to draw on his love of hockey in The Goon. An avid hockey card collector as a kid, Edson made it to AAA but "was way too small." When the characters watch hockey at the Lord Beaverbrook Rink, Edson writes in broken, staccato paragraphs, switching perspectives around the rink. It reads like a sportscaster, and for good reason. Edson has a post graduate certificate in sports journalism from Sheridan College and worked for one week at TSN before quitting.

Edson's real life connections and skewing of stereotypes reinforces his use of Saint John as a living character in his work. Still, he knows people who aren't familiar with the city could have a darker opinion of the place if all they did was read his books.

"I write about the taverns. If I write about downtown it's some guy hammered at three in the morning, not when it's the middle of a Sunday afternoon and the sun is out. I don't paint that picture.

"I don't mean not to. I don't want to make Saint John look like something that it isn't in a negative sense, but the people I'm writing about are the lower ends that could be found in any city. I just happen to be from Saint John."

Edson says he feels a responsibility to not make the city look bad--"It's the best city on the planet to me. It really is. It's my home"--but he also has to write the characters he wants to regardless if they paint a bad picture of Saint John.

Besides, in Edson's head you can meet Jack Jones every time you cross the bridge or grab an Alpine at the Three Mile. S

Mike Landry is arts and culture editor at the Telegraph-Journal. He can be reached at landry.michael@telegraphjournal.com.

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