Once You Break a Knuckle by D.W. Wilson has twelve stories and for that simple reason I will make twelve points in my review.
- This book is a must read. But it is not easy to read.
- The main characters are men. Men and boys, sons and fathers. Women are mostly someone to feel guilty about or someone to desire or someone who has run off and ruined your life.
- The title comes from Constable John Crease, who says it to Mitch Cooper: “Once you break a knuckle, he always said, you will break it again.” He says it to Mitch, who is his son Will’s best friend, on the night that he wants Mitch to persuade Will to get the hell out of Invermere. The stories are set in the Kootenay Valley of British Columbia.
- Will Crease is the first person narrator of “The Elasticity of Bone,” “Reception,” and “Don’t Touch the Ground.” The stories hop around in time. The first is when Will’s father beats him at judo just before going to Kosovo and the second is about his father’s return — about his father and his relationship with his father. The third is about bullying when they are young teens, and how his friend Mitch takes revenge on the bullies. In the Will stories, the repeating theme is that Will must get himself out of “Inverhole” and not waste his life as his RCMP father did. There is no mention of Will’s mother. Will’s stories are peppered with slogans on shirts, mugs, caps. Too much pepper for me.
- Two of the stories are interesting or confusing, depending on your alertness. When Mitch takes the stage in the third person story, “The Millworker,” we learn that Mitch, the son of the renowned naturalist Larry Cooper, has been encouraged to work with his hands. He is married to Andrea, whom he seems to have cheated on, and has a son of 17 who gets in trouble with the law. And the law is Constable Will Crease. Then Mitch tells another story, in first person: “Once You Break a Knuckle,” a story about the younger Mitch helping Will’s dad find Duncan, a lovelorn kid their age. Will is home from university and Mitch is building the house that is falling apart in “The Millworker.” Wilson, then, is giving us the two versions of Will’s future. In “The Millworker,” he marries Mitch’s sister, Ash, and becomes an RCMP Constable, and no longer speaks to Mitch. In the second, John Crease has a word with Mitch, and Mitch has a word with Ash, and they conspire to keep Will from his simple desire (girl, job) so that he can pursue his dream of going West to study writing.
- There are other characters in the book, including the non-human ones of cars.
Every car is named. Interestingly, this kind of naming was mentioned as common to stories by boys in the Guardian yesterday. A cobalt 67 Camaro is restored by Bellows in “Sediment” (another story of bullying). In “Dead Road,” the narrator, Duncan, talks about Animal Brooks’ cobalt 67 Camaro. Even someone as car clueless as I am can see that the car helps define the character. Cool Camaros for tough guys, trucks for electricians and so on. This point is perhaps best made when Mitch’s brother Paul, who (possibly) shows up as the kid and electrician in training in “The Persistence,” has made for himself a prosperous business in a later story: “Mitch spotted his brother’s truck, a forty-five-thousand-dollar enviro-friendly bio-dieseled no-footprint half-ton.” Mitch and Paul don’t have much time for each other.
- By this time you might be thinking of Raymond Carver and Hemingway and whatever macho writer springs to your mind, but I am thinking of Alice Munro. Three examples. First, his use of voice. Here is Will’s father speaking, “Promotions, he told me, are a lot like blowjobs: easy to get if you’re willing to go somewhere dirty.” Second, for his fresh, short descriptions: “a beaver-toothed kid” and “earthworms he’d dangle like a set of keys.” Third, for the emotional punch. The last line of “Persistence”: “All the problems could wait.” Will seeing his father in pain: “…when I stood helpless in front of him, hands tensed at my sides, his eyes squinched shut and his jaw clamped and Jesus, what had this done to him.”
- Old man, rednecks, shithole, hicks, gun-toters, goody-goody, blitz – I read this language with envy. It is much easier to play it safe and use only words everyone can understand. Speaking of which, what is a “commie hat”? What is this recurring use of the word “gamed” (“Winch’s dad gamed with the cabbage-like smell of pulp”)? What does it mean to “never have the stones”? “She’s gone and cleaned” (not referring to housework)? Maybe using local language does have its pitfalls. What do you think?
- Kudos, though, for pushing “superhero” and “Vietnam” into verbs.
- Hey, Winch’s dad is watching Dr Who in “Valley Echo.”
- It took me a long time to read this book. I read Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting and Nick Hornby’s Slam while reading Once You Break a Knuckle. In comparison, they were easy to understand, fun to read.
- This book delivers a jolt much like the one you get coming out from shopping to the parking lot or car park and you see a guy with a baseball cap on backwards in spattered jeans standing with his hand on the door of a pick-up truck, and you’ve got your new office shoes in your hand and are looking forward to a bath to start the weekend, and the guy is shouting fuck phrases at a woman in a track jacket with a cigarette between her fingers as she unlocks her rusty car, a car that she might have picked up when your grandmother died and her things were all sold off. You watch them as your hand fumbles for the keys to your imported car. And then a smoker by the door of the building shouts at them to take it somewhere else and while they frown at him, you pass between them, through the fuck-smoked air, feeling as if you have gone out the wrong door and entered the Canada that doesn’t listen to the CBC. The guy gives up on the woman and calls to you and invites you for a couple beers. And you really miss the “of,” so you shake your head No and mutter to yourself, “a couple of beers.” Reading this book is like getting in the half-ton with him.
If you’ve read this far, then you might like to read about Wilson’s next book, Ballistics, here.