The ghost of violence past

The Globe and Mail, March 23, 2002
Review by Jim Bartley

Victoria writer Clint Hutzulak opens his first novel with a precise and uninflected description of sex for cash in a frigid parking lot outside a truckstop motel. Stace and Tanya are renewing a fractured friendship.

Stace has returned after a year's absence, mostly to even the score with his ex, Lillis Rae. Driven by dull, chronic rage, he's a wandering loser with the heart of a poet; he knows there's a higher plane he could aim for, but bitterness and the surrender to drugs and booze have brought him to a festering standstill.

Stace's solution is to surprise Lillis Rae's new boyfriend in the driveway of his house and kill him with his own shotgun. Hutzulak's rendering of the scene is stunning in every aspect. The crystalline cinematic focus, Stace's dreamlike perceptions as the deed unfolds, the dobermans going wild inside the house, the poplar trees fluttering in the yard, the explosion of flesh into blood and bone — every detail of setting and behaviour and inner response contributes to the spare, mesmerizing beauty of Hutzulak's prose.

After the deed, Stace dies from a binge of tequila and morphine. Before his low-life companions can sneak his body from the motel, his soul is spirited away by a silver-haired old guy with a panel van, who delivers him to a decrepit hunting lodge, a "transfer" station filled with the prematurely dead. On arrival, Stace is told that a reckoning is imminent. The sad residue of his life will be boiled away. "What we're left with, what we get down to, is the core. The part of you you've never taken time to look at."

Like many a sinner before him, Stace is forced to revisit the living and to ponder his misdeeds.

Hutzulak at his best creates scenes shimmering with presence, in which nothing is extraneous to his purpose. Even things such as an image seen in passing, in the middle of the night, on a TV screen behind a motel reception desk ("a woman in a bonnet and long dress, standing empty-handed in a stony field") resonate as emblems of something essential.

As a novel, though, the book fails to integrate, sliding from noirish crime sequences to lyrical romanticism, from ghostly hauntings to existential rumination, and Hutzulak's poetical dialogue is often unconvincing.

Still, there is extraordinary descriptive writing here — fine enough, happily, to stand apart from the creative lapses. 

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer. 
Copyright 2002 by Jim Bartley