If WASTE, Andrew Sullivan's debut novel about the old weird Canadiana town of Larkhill, loosely based on his hometown of Oshawa, was ever put to film, Black Grass would provide the perfect soundtrack. Black Grass is the name Orono musician Bradley Boy MacArthur gives to the music that comes from around the city of Oshawa, east of Toronto. It is the sound of bands such as Cuff The Duke, Lindi Ortega, Timber Timbre and Jadea Kelly as well as the Billiard Blossom, The Stables and The Stellas. There's an honesty to it, a toughness to it and a darkness in it, which is, not coincidently, the stuff of Waste.
"Black Grass does make sense for Larkhill, it`s a city that is isolated the way Oshawa used to be, the fallow spaces between the warehouses and the factories that have been torn down. The city being reclaimed by the weeds in its way. I definitely see that connection and with that music too. I know they`re not from Oshawa, but I was listening to a lot of Elliott Brood and Constantines when the novel was coming together and I think that is in there. A city that is never fully civilized, always waiting to tip over into decline, to be reclaimed by the woods," says Sullivan when the Black Grass moniker was proposed by SlowCity.ca.
Larkhill in 1989 is the city ready to tip, into violence, into economic collapse. One night a lion meets a dead-end; accidentally killed by a car. The driver and passenger struggle free and return to their own dead-end lives of metal illness, stagnant wages, and unsavoury friendships. But Astor Crane, the lion's owner, is searching for the killers and he doesn't have a reputation for empathy.
"The book was inspired by old urban legends and bullshit stories I overheard about drug deals gone bad and people keeping pets that should have been illegal outside of town," says Sullivan. "A lot of it just fantasy, people talking tough at 3 a.m. They were all most likely made-up, but these sort of stories had some kernels of truth in them. They were the lies and myths of a city just big enough to get lost in, just big enough to get you in real trouble. So I spent a lot of time researching, reading police blotters from the 80s, compiling the stories I knew, fact-checking some things with older folks. Although a lot of the roots of WASTE are in the 'Shwa, it's not a perfect copy. It's hyper real and surreal and a mismatch of other places like Peterborough, London, Sarnia, etc. It's a patchwork of Ontario cities just big enough to have problems you can't trace back to one person. It's also in the past, the city I see today resembles very little in the book. But I do think there is a core there that's hard scrabble, that's proud, that's going to go out on a Friday and get lit up. And that runs like a stream under the city and the book."
Sullivan grew up in that hard scrabble core, Oshawa's South End. It is an area dominated by the skyline of the General Motors Automotive Plant and its feeder factories but it is close, too, to Darlington Provincial Park, Lake Ontario and its feeder creeks. With not much else to do Sullivan says he hung out in basements, ravines or on farms just outside the city. He does single out the Oshawa Public LIbrary as a haven for an inquisitive boy.
"I found a lot of books and art in the public libraries, started reading people like Dashiell Hammett and Toni Morrison and J.G. Ballard and Harry Crews. I have a lot of love for the Oshawa Public Libraries. For music, you were stuck with the mall or grabbing what you could at shows ( at the Dungeon or the Velvet Elvis). Opportunity came with getting out of Durham Region, I think its healthy to uproot yourself while you still can. You always end up coming back again anyway," he says.
Sullivan ends up coming back to his roots, psychologically, in his novel. He revisits the half-glimpsed fragments of lives from his youth. They rest uneasily in the darkly nightmarish leaves of Waste. The book is available in the States already but will be launched in Canada at The Garrison in Toronto, Wednesday Mar 23. WASTE is published by Dznac.