A Sack of Teeth
by Grant Buday
Published by Raincoast Books
269 pages, 2002
A Bag of Insight
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Vancouver writer Grant Buday is best-known for his nitty-gritty portrayals of urban angst and the shadowy underside of human relationships. I saw him once at a local book event. He's a shy, saturnine figure with a wry smile that could almost pass for a grimace. Though his reading that day was a strange, convoluted story about a transsexual, his new novel, A Sack of Teeth, covers very different emotional ground.
It's a noirish take on the suburban Vancouver of the mid-1960s, plumbing deep beneath the glossy surface into the tangled inner lives of its occupants. The entire novel covers one day in the life of the Klein family, and though they're about as far from the Cleavers as is psychologically possible, this particular day is nightmarish even by their usual standards.
For 6-year-old Jack, it's the first day of Grade One, a fact that can lead to no possible good. He's all dressed up in the stiff, scratchy new clothes we all remember from our first day of school: "The shoes felt like boxes, the corduroys smelled like dog fur and the shirt felt like the shower curtain." Teased by his rough-edged older buddy, Ivor Skog, Jack knows there is only one allowable response: "He laughed because cry and you were dead, that was the rule, and Jack would eat dirt rather than look like a sissy."
Ah, the 60s -- a time when families still strained to be perfect, even if the smiles were riveted in place. Jack's mother Lorraine was only 18 when she had him, fleeing a miserable childhood with a mentally-disturbed mother. Marriage to the much-older Ray Klein seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was a mismatch from the start, particularly in the bedroom: "When they had sex his bristly hair pricked her skin; it was like being intimate with a scrub brush .... They made love like a couple dancing in shoes that pinched."
Lorraine is a daydreamy young woman who wistfully spins the globe in the living room, planting her finger on France, her dreamscape. Ray is a testosterone-impaired alpha male deeply absorbed in his shiny Thunderbird and his secret mistress Charlene, a 40-ish, worldly-wise figure who knows enough not to get her hopes up.
The bombshell that will knock back the whole family hits in the first chapter, when Antoine Gaudin, a shy 60-year-old Frenchman who boards in the Kleins' basement, swallows a cyanide capsule for reasons which are at first not at all clear. Unable to ignore the stench coming from the heat register, Lorraine goes to investigate and opens the door on his corpse, fighting her way through the 36 canaries fluttering wildly about the room: "Antoine's face was glazed in guano and his eyes pecked to jelly. 'Oh God...' She stumbled out and leaned against the plum tree and retched."
There are reasons for the intensity of her reaction. She had come to love Antoine in the two years he lived with them, and though the relationship was platonic, his tender regard for her filled the emotional void she experienced with Ray. As Lorraine hustles Jack off to school to face his own private purgatory of bullying boys and the teacher from hell, she simultaneously blows Ray's cover when she phones the office and finds that he has "called in sick" (code for sneaking off with Charlene).
In other words, all manner of horrible things erupt on the same day. But the backstory is even darker, in which we learn how dysfunctional Jack's little playmate Ivor really is (his father Sven, an inhuman thug with no redeeming features, has sex with his Down's Syndrome daughter in the woods), how bleak it was for Lorraine with a crazy mother, and just how much Ray Klein suffered for being a Jew.
The Jewishness is part of a subtext foreshadowed by recurrent news broadcasts on the trial of one Albert Schell, a Nazi war criminal living in Vancouver. Dark, dark, dark -- as dark as fiction can get, and yet so well-written that it always feels worth going on: "At six years old, Jack Klein knew many things: that plums and apples tasted best when stolen, that by putting hockey gloves on your feet you become King Kong, and that the air in the freezer smelled like snow."
The descriptions of marital discontent are blackly funny. The first night Ray and Lorraine sleep together without having relations, Lorraine recalls, "Not having sex had been a relief, a glimpse of what married life would hold." Their first time is even bleaker: "It felt more like a doctor-patient relationship and Ray knew they were both relieved when it was over, as if sex was some sort of surgical procedure."
Is it any surprise that Antoine Gaudin is not at all who he appears to be? When we find out the real significance of the sack of teeth he leaves behind, it's not a big revelation, consistent with the macabre atmosphere that permeates the entire work. And in killing off Antoine on page 24, Buday removes the most interesting and nuanced character in the book. There are other problems: the 1960s pop-culture references seem a bit forced and overdone. And certain characters, like Sven Skog, are too subhuman to be believable.
So why read A Sack of Teeth? It's written with insight, emotional accuracy and brutal honesty about the nature of human darkness. I can guarantee you this book will not cheer you up. But you might just recognize certain difficult truths in its stark, haunting pages. | September 2002
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.