There’s nothing like embarking on a new challenge by inadvertently cuffing yourself upside the head, which is precisely how I feel right now about this book. When The Saints, by Sarah Mian is the first of the three finalists for the 2016 Leacock Medal I chose to read. It was a purely random act, that choice, but one that immediately turned my modest ploy for blog attention into a legitimate conundrum. What do I make of this book?
When The Saints is exactly the kind of book that drives me bonkers and ultimately confuses the hell out of me. I have no idea if I love it or loathe it or, for that matter, which of those two options. I spent most of the time reading it thinking to myself, “Do people actually live like this?” That’s a horribly elitist statement to make but I can assure you it stems more from a woefully sheltered and naïve upbringing than any grand delusions of superiority.
Furthermore, in the context of potentially winning an award for humour, I’m additionally perplexed by this novel. Is it funny? Sure. There are without a doubt some funny parts. The characters are colourful in a small town, blue collar kind of way without devolving into parody and their dialogue and antics will elicit a few snorts. Should it be funny? Well, that’s another question entirely. Are we laughing with these characters or at them? I’m not one hundred percent sure which, frankly.
Are The Poor or Criminal Funny?
I strongly suspect it is, or is intended to be, the former, that Sarah is using humour, sometimes a dark humour, to balance what at times is exceptionally unsettling subject matter. In that sense, I’m reminded of lyrics to one of my favourite The Pursuit of Happiness songs, “You’ve got to laugh to keep yourself from crying.” The poor, under-educated, and criminal are not funny simply because they talk crassly and live audacious lives. The burden these characters have been forced to carry, and in many instances have equally dumped on others, could easily crush a weaker person. And for at least one character, Poppy, it all but has. The laughter, then, not only hides the tears but serves as a voluble “fuck you” to Fate.
Still, as Tabby, the protagonist and narrator, shares the uglier details of her life story I kept finding myself cringing in discomfort as beatings, abandonments, assaults, and rapes are shared forthrightly yet couched in cynical humour. Again, I suspect this was done intentionally and it is effective in summoning a response from the reader. Having reflected on this for more than a week now, I’m able to appreciate such technique but while in the midst of reading I must admit there were moments I contemplated stopping.
Interestingly, I was reminded of a few other works when reading When The Saints. It’s reminiscent of Downtown Owl, the Chuck Klosterman novel that I absolutely adored. The settings and characters are very similar, save for the expected cultural differences between small town American Midwest and small town Canadian Maritimes. Yet I didn’t come away from When The Saints with that same all-consuming admiration for the book like I did with Downtown Owl. I’m not sure why that is.
Perhaps it’s because Klosterman’s stereotypical characters, when we were given privy to their personal thoughts, proved quite different than those stereotypes lead us to expect. They revealed a tenderness and humanity that our prejudices too rarely allow us to acknowledge. Mian’s characters, on the other hand, are all exactly as advertised. Even Tabby, our heroine, and her family, though they may be clawing to redeem themselves, remain a salty crew unafraid to bend the rules of law and society to achieve that redemption. This is not to say they are unlikeable, by any means. Rather that despite their noble pursuit of redemption and dignity they all remain, by and large, true to their stereotype. Then again, none of the Downtown Owl cast had the appalling back story the Saint family did.
A Feminist Trailer Park Boys
The more obvious comparison is Trailer Park Boys, though with a serious, dark side that everyone’s favourite trailer trash avoids. One might even go so far as to say When The Saints is a feminist Trailer Park Boys or Trailer Park Women if you will. It’s hard when one piece of art so strongly reminds you of another. The temptation to contrast the two overwhelms the unique experience of the newer work. This is especially true when the more prominent work is such a fixture of pop culture and riddled with farce.
While a current of dead seriousness pervades When The Saints, the humour, characters, and overall feel of the book evoke strong allusions to the Trailer Park Boys. Even when the plot turned to kidnapping a toddler, I found myself unable to refrain from envisioning Lyle walking around with a rum and coke in his hand. Whether this perceived homage is a compliment or criticism depends, I suppose, on your opinion of Trailer Park Boys itself. I make no judgement either way though I worry I’m developing an unfair impression of how Nova Scotians live.
When all is said and done, I’m pretty sure I loved this book more than I loathed it. At least I think I do. Hell, it correctly referenced Leaping Lanny Poffo of wrestling “fame”. You don’t come across little strokes of brilliance like that very often.
I certainly haven’t stopped thinking about When The Saints since I finished. And all my reservations regarding the subject matter and whether we should be laughing about such things were confirmed when my wife read it and came away with identical concerns. A book that makes you think so much surely must be good, no?
Trigger Warnings Abound
That being said, it’s definitely a book that will fluster and even offend some. In our sensitive world of instant affronts and trigger warnings, When The Saints is bound to turn more than a few readers off. For those with thicker skins or less traumatic pasts, it’ll provide a solid laugh tempered with blunt truths to keep you sober. As my first choice for reading of the three Leacock Medal finalists, it was most definitely far more than I anticipated.
Had I written this immediately following completion of the book, I’m sure I’d have rated it a little lower. As the story and experience have churned in my mind for a few days, I’ve grown more attached to it and my rating is creeping upwards. Funny but dark, When The Saints by Sarah Mian earns 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5 from this somewhat shell-shocked reader. It’s a definite worthwhile read, a recommendation I’d have given even in the thrall of my initial doubt. Regardless if you ultimately decide you don’t like it, a book that makes you react and think is always worth your time to read.