Toronto the not so goodREVIEW / Cathi Bond's Night Town is a vibrant, harrowing first novel
“Not enough ecstasy for me,” Jack Kerouac famously wrote in On the Road, “not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.” Of course he was romanticizing: he was white, a soon-to-be icon of the beat movement, “wishing I were a Negro” and bewailing the white world’s pallor in the ecstasy department. Toronto writer Cathi Bond has a much more nuanced, less romanticized view of nocturnal life in her vibrant, engaging and often harrowing first novel. Night, she knows, can protect, can seduce, can bore, can terrify – especially when your protagonist is a small-town teenaged girl coming to terms with personal tragedy, a developing sexuality and a city – Toronto – experiencing its own tangled adolescence.
Maddy Barnes is a 13-year-old girl living a storybook life in a small southwestern Ontario town. Her father is the town doctor. Her mother is beautiful and a model homemaker. The marriage seems a real love match. She has two younger brothers, and the whole happy package might seem like a sketch for a domestic television sitcom except for Bond’s skill at adding just the right amount of narrative dissonance: the little neighbourhood girl struck and killed by a car in the opening pages. Maddy’s sadistic grandfather (he torments the children by pinching them). The medical tests that her mother undergoes in Toronto and which no one seems to want to talk about.
It turns out Mrs Barnes has cancer, though that isn’t revealed until much later (locals believed it was infectious and happened only to bad people). Maddy becomes convinced that she’s the one responsible for her mother’s untimely death, which happened not long after she’d been caught being French kissed by a boy. Her mother’s refusal to say she had cancer, Maddy’s misplaced guilt and the slow realization that she’s attracted to girls combine to send her life spiralling out of control. It gets worse when her father remarries and the family moves to Toronto. Before long she’s stealing narcotics from her father’s office until, inevitably, she’s living on the street and dealing the drugs she’s come to need as badly as her clients.
Bond is particularly good at painting a nuanced picture of street life – the world out there is both gritty and tender. Yes, there are monsters: Hermann, the local drug czar, is a chilling psychopath, but crazy drunk Gabe and angelic whore Lily create a kind of family without the prose having to descend into mawkishness. As Maddy slowly develops a hard-won acceptance of her lesbianism, we get intriguing glimpses of gay Toronto in the 1970s. The Blue Jay, a dyke bar at Gerrard and Carlaw, was ground zero for stone butches and their frilly femmes. That scene, funny, disturbing and touching, horrifies Maddy (“there was no way I was going to spend my life dressed like John Wayne”), but she isn’t exactly inspired by the scene at Jo Jo’s, a clone bar on Church Street, where she gets introduced to the gay male hanky code and the fact that gay men will have sex outside, even in the dead of winter. There’s change in the air, though – gay men and lesbians are beginning to socialize together, and Helen, Maddy’s guide that night, talks about the power inherent in being out and being proud, though she’s just coming to realize that herself. The novel hurtles perhaps too precipitately to a conclusion that can seem a little pat, but there’s no “happily ever after” for these characters, not quite yet. Unlike Kerouac, they’ve seen too much night.
Bond is gay and a broadcaster for CBC Radio. Night Town is the middle volume of a projected trilogy she says will be the story of a family and of a city over the course of nearly 100 years, a story that will “document our history as citizens of Toronto (as everything’s being smashed to smithereens) and also document our collective gay history. I see it being forgotten, and that infuriates me.” She won’t write history in the academic sense – scrupulously researched, possibly dry, rigorously fact-checked, referenced and indexed. We need that, of course. But there’s something we need at least as much – good story. Bond has that in hand.
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