By Tony Burgess
Tony Burgess is one of Canadian fiction’s most distinctive voices, with a penchant for pushing envelopes and going to uncomfortable extremes. It’s a reputation that Idaho Winter will do nothing to change, being a short novel about a short novel that goes off the rails when its eponymous hero decides to overthrow the tyrannical author that has been tormenting him.
The setting is Burgess’ usual stomping ground of semi-rural hicktown Ontario. The grim opening pages introduce us to “poor pathetic Idaho Winter,” a young boy living a life that is a grotesque parody of poverty and squalor (he even eats maggoty roadkill for breakfast). From such dismal beginnings things remarkably proceed to go downhill, as we see the townspeople – possessed of the instinctual cruelty and homicidal fury that Burgess sees as being an essential part of the human condition – going after poor Idaho with everything but torches and pitchforks.
A third of the way through the book, however, Idaho is introduced to the author (who becomes the book’s first-person narrator), and realizes that he (Idaho) can write his own story. This the young Frankenstein proceeds to do, composing a mash-up of dinosaurs, old movies, and the rock band Green Day while disappearing from the text himself. All of which leaves the author to navigate a surreal landscape, “exposed to the violence of the narrative” and trying to fix his own creation while serving up a stream of metafictional asides addressed to the reader.
Idaho Winter is Burgess’s third book to be published in less than a year (the others were Ravenna Gets and People Live Still at Cashtown Corners), and gives the impression of having been written in haste. It’s full of the upsetting and extreme imagery we’ve come to expect, but none of the poetry. The conceit behind it isn’t that original, and is incapable of resolution even with the assistance of an Editor who drops in to let us know that the book “does not have the resources required to solve its own problems” (surely a foreseeable system failure). What we’re left with reads like a dream diary haunted by a whole suite of conventional authorial anxieties. As such it provides an interesting snapshot of where Burgess’ head is at, but still feels like one of his slighter efforts.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2011.