Nina, the Bandit Queen

By Joey Slinger

The word “farce” is derived from the Latin verb “to stuff.” In French it still refers to what gets packed into a turkey at Thanksgiving, and as a literary term it’s characterized by broad humour, lots of physical action, and bewilderingly complex plots that move so quickly you don’t notice if they make any sense.

It is also the kind of fiction that popular Toronto Star columnist Joey Slinger specializes in.

His new novel, Nina, the Bandit Queen is stuffed with odd characters and rapid-firing, interlocked events. The setting is SuEz, an urban ghetto that the gangstas in neighbouring high-rises apparently use for target practice. Almost no one in SuEz has a job, but everyone seems to be running some kind of scam. These range from disability and welfare fraud to various criminal enterprises – though it’s notable that hardly anyone thinks they’re doing anything criminal. Even stealing cars and robbing banks are redefined as victimless crimes (which they often are, since the people being stolen from are usually involved in the scam as well).

That sense of “no harm, no foul” is carried over into the novel’s presentation of violence. While people are shot, tortured, blown up, and thrown out of windows, it is all dealt with in comic-book fashion, and we never get a sense of any real pain being inflicted. Even limbs (as well as more private organs) are torn off and then simply reattached.

The novel’s main character is Nina Dolgoy, a woman who is transformed “from an average, down-to-earth welfare queen into some kind of raging warrior welfare queen” by the intrusion of an obnoxious ice cream truck into her neighbourhood. She then tries to save the community swimming pool by fair means or foul, which gets her involved with a bank heist gone wrong, an obliging car-jacker, a pair of Nigerian secret service agents who have been suckered into coming to Canada by an Internet phishing scheme, a slacker drop-out from the armed forces who has started his own “space-based” religion of alien abductees, and a whack of other colourful losers.

As a gay cop on Nina’s trail understands, it is all “surreal slapstick.” And true to the nature of farce it never lets up the frantic, madcap pace. The plot tends to fall apart at this high speed, more dissolving than resolving at the end, but it’s a fun ride that does what farce is meant to do: enjoyably fill the time.

Review first published in the Toronto Star March 17, 2012.

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