The Beautiful Dead End review by Matthew Firth

Front and Centre magazine, No. 6, February 2003
Review by Matthew Firth

This is a remarkable, at times terrifying, novel. It has all the elements: love, murder, death, drugs, sex, mystery, madness and weirdness. Clint Hutzulak has written a stark, imaginative, edgy tale that is just what this country needs: an abrupt shift away from the oh-so-typical, Toronto-based, suffering middle classes novel. Instead, The Beautiful Dead End is set somewhere out west on a snowy prairie at the edge of an unnamed town with characters much rougher around the edges than, say, a Toronto psychologist or art curator.

The book opens with a disturbing drug-scoring scene and subsequent OD in a cheap hotel. The protagonist, Stace, finds himself facedown on cold bathroom tiles, dead. And when you're dead, according to Hutzulak, you are covered in honey. Did anyone know this? And the honey tastes great, right? Sure it does. Stace's companion on the night of his death, Tanya, thinks it tastes great anyway. So great that she licks it off his cold, stiff body, causing her lust to froth in one of the book's more memorable scenes.

In the after-world, Hutzulak takes the reader for another turn. When we die we do not meet St Peter awaiting our admission to the place beyond the pearly gates. In The Beautiful Dead End — after dying — we stew for a while in a crowded, backcountry lodge that once belonged to a mad and murderous old German-Canadian couple, awaiting our lengthy interrogation by a suicide. In fact, the lodge is run entirely by people who killed themselves. Hutzulak had me trembling here. Imagine one of the first stages of the afterlife is like being forced into a cluttered, dank basement but instead of mouldy hockey equipment, piles of scrap lumber and boxes of detritus surrounding you, it is scarred, bleeding and damaged humans — bored with waiting for their bodies to be discovered back on earth — that litter and foul the place, taunting and confusing you at every step.

The atmosphere Hutzulak creates can be compared to that created by Cormac McCarthy in Child of God. All that happens in both books is shrouded in a dark, dangerous, dreary hue where the potential for violence is always near. Hutzulak, however, gives us more love in his book than McCarthy in his. For Stace must reconcile his love for Lillis Rae, his lover, and does so by transcending death, eerily straddling this world and the next. As such, Hutzulak wrestles with big issues — the meaning of past relationships, our penchant for idling through life not recognizing our constant proximity to death, and, perhaps more than any theme in the book, whether we can truly know anyone else on this earth, especially those who are closest to us.

Also like McCarthy, Hutzulak savours vivid description, at times almost pressing the reader's face into the page:

"He had concentrated on a few surfaces details: the shape of her lip, the curve of a breast, an arm, scars he or someone else put there, the soft scruff at the back of a neck, incoherent memories of a time spent at some campground, fucking against the side of a car in a mountain parking lot, her sweet, warm breath at the corner of his eye — that is what and how he knows her. In the dark her body a map he could trace and retrace with five or six always-repeated routes. Hidden currents driving her muscles and it had had nothing to do with him. No memories, no history, nothing that he knew."

This is excellent writing, a fine compliment to the tale being told. With no hyperbole intended, I can state that Hutzulak's The Beautiful Dead End is an achievement in Canadian literature. It's been a while since a book by a Canadian has affected me as deeply as this one has.

Copyright 2003 by Matthew Firth