Review by Catherine Nutter
Tanya Chapman’s debut novel, King (Coach House Press, 224 pp., $21.95), is a coming of age story as gritty as diamond dust. Chapman’s hard-drinking characters are wildflowers, gracing the liminal space between trailer park and open road. Small but shining jewels of truth are revealed in the smoky beer-funk of a run down cowboy bar, small town thrift store, mobile home love nest.
The novel’s pages are populated with a small crew of dysfunctional individuals. Like their temporarily located trailer homes, these characters exist on the threshold of society, with a swamp of drunken self-indulgence and missed opportunity on one side, and the open road of redemption and second chances on the other.
Chapman, a graduate of UBC’s creative writing program, invites readers to examine the best and the worst of human nature in her strangely charming chronicle. The legacy of alcoholism and abuse is at the root of her characters’ booze-drenched behaviour.
From Sissy, who was “not quite right” from the get-go, because her mother was dosed on acid when Sissy was born, to the novel’s namesake, King, who creates an elaborate persona in order to conceal his self-loathing and abusive upbringing, these are folks who careen through life looking for any temporary shelter from their own internal storm.
Chapman’s main character, Hazel, is a young woman whose own legacy of broken-ness has her plunging into increasingly desperate avoidance strategies in order to cope. Glimpses into her past reveal a fragmented reality of family breakdown and desperation. As a result, Hazel has splintered into two different people: the honour roll student and the teenage slut. Her growing tendency to dissociate, both intentionally through consumption of massive amounts of alcohol, and unintentionally — Hazel “loses time” and finds herself disoriented and confused — reaches a crisis point.
Hazel abandons her old identity (Hazel is not her real name), jumps into her ’71 Duster, and comes to rest, temporarily, in the Evening and Morning Star Trailer Park. There she meets King, the regal ruler of motorcycle repair; patriarch of broken things. Also a good-looking bad boy, King’s stock in trade is his ability to be what other people want him to be.
Hazel falls in love with her version of King, a hard-loving, hard-drinking funster. He becomes her entire reason for living, and is the only person who can drink more than her. “Drinking takes diligence, concentration, and daily training,” she tells us, “not to mention the constitution of a Spartan soldier.”
This plunge into the bottle, and submersion into the troubled waters of King, provides Hazel with temporary peace. She discovers the joys of liquid eyeliner, army boots, and earning a living, along with increasing her eccentric and decidedly floral wardrobe while working part time at a thrift store.
Chapman’s passion for balance and binary opposites becomes evident with the introduction of Egg, a nerdy, college-attending, teetotalling good-boy, whose pant cuffs are stapled up in order to fit his short legs. Egg is King’s opposite; his lack of swagger and sex appeal is rivaled only by his saintly benevolence to Hazel. Inevitably, Hazel’s idealized version of King begins to give way. His stint in jail, disastrous attempt at a come-back gig for his de-funked rock band, and increasing absences in the company of at least one other woman leave Hazel seeing King with new eyes.
Hazel realizes her love for King can never compensate for the self-love that he lacks. Hazel’s epiphany arrives when she realizes that she doesn’t need to continue living in fear. She will never be able to fix the patriarch of broken things. She will, however, just possibly be able to fix herself.
The truth is, we all have wounds and broken-ness. And we all have the opportunity to heal, and make our future a better place than our past. In King, Tanya Chapman offers readers the most potent pick-me-up of all: hope.