Slammin' Tar

by Cecil Foster,
288 pages,
ISBN: 0679308792

Post Your Opinion
by Andrew Faiz

This is a great example, which should be taught in every writing class, of a bad novel. It has pretensions of greatness mangled by the earnest skills of a hack. At half its length with a good dosage of editing and some infusion of art, it could have been a good book. As it is, it feels like the first draft of a novel in progress.

The novel is narrated by a spider. This is a literary device that has worked in the past. Good novels have been narrated by dogs, classic novels have revolved around spiders, pigs, and a cockroach (or what is commonly assumed to be one). There is even a current book with a dog detective. And, as the narrator here states many times, there are narrative traditions in which spiders are deemed to be true story-tellers. So in himself the spider should not be cause for complaint.

But this is an omniscient spider. He knows the thoughts of every character in the novel, even the most minor. And he can relate scenes which he has not witnessed, complete with actions, thoughts, scenery, and dialogue. He clearly likes and endlessly defends the protagonist of his tale, Johnny, a strong silent type; he tells the reader over and over again how we should react to all the characters. This then is the first lesson on how to write a bad novel, which we can already learn by page 5.

High pretensions, yes, but more importantly, a lack of faith in the reader. On page 21, we are told that two men (Johnny and Cuthbert) have taken the same taxi trip together to airport every year for twenty-five years. On page 25, Cuthbert says to Johnny, "It's only a short distance to walk to the Air Canada counter." What is the purpose of that dialogue? Both characters know where the counter is, they know every twist and turn of the airport. But the reader doesn't. So, the author's heavy hand has to intrude to let the reader know how far the counter is from the taxi stand, no matter whether or not we need that information or not. It's a small but grating moment. Sadly, it's not the only one. In another, an "officer soldiers on". And again: "He decides to come in out of the dark, if you get my drift."

After a while, around page 40 or so, it becomes a game: Just how stupid does the author think the reader is? Well, on page 110 the spider tells us that this novel will "really get going tomorrow". So the preceding 109 pages are there, with thick underliner, to make sure we understand the themes.

The story is about Bajan men who spend ten months each year working on an Ontario tobacco farm. The first quarter of the novel begins in Barbados and moves to Canada (where it is snowing, natch!) a day later. All the characters are introduced. Johnny may or may not be aware of his wife's affair; they're building a house that has no roof (metaphor). Wives are introduced, one is snooty, another recently widowed. As for the spider, he used to be the primary storyteller for Marcus Garvey in another life (thematic parallelism).

The second quarter presents the life at the farm, complete with a hazing ritual for the new guy. The farm owner is having financial troubles and the bank wants him to grow cabbages. On page 200, the spider tells us, "I feel in my bones that something is about to happen." For the remaining two hundred plus pages, the reader is bound to wonder whether spiders have bones.

It is the author's contention that these men are like slaves. On page 110, we are told about the assignment that the spider is carrying out in this book, on the instructions of Mother Nyame, "the great warrior mother": "See if we can learn anything from having so many of our African men living in this prolonged isolation-you know, on a farm, in prison or even at jobs where they feel there's no future, no chance of integrating into the emerging international economy." And on page 160: "Don't they look like the slaves that four or five generations ago...?"

The men are victims; the farm owner is besieged by the bank; various Caribbean governments need the migrant labour farm program to help develop their countries' economies. Everybody is hurting because of the Emerging International Economy. This isn't a novel, this is an essay.

Which is lesson two. Have an axe to grind, make sure your bad guy is some indeterminate theory, and make certain every person in your novel has the semblance of character-dialogue, personal lives, body features-but without self-determination. Page 191: "This man would never understand, he thinks to himself, that only the scumbuckets of the world, only the sleazebags would buy farm equipment to help a bank raise a few thousand dollars, in the process of driving some poor family off its farm."

Oh, and one more example, because like Mr. Foster I'm not certain you the reader have fully understood my thesis: "It is now up to Delbert and Henry to win the tournament for Edgecliff simply by not losing."

It is obvious what Foster wants to do with this book. He wants to tie together history, politics, economics, and racism into the experience of these farm workers. If all these themes did intersect upon these lives, this would be a great novel, in the tradition of Dickens. Cecil Foster fails for one simple reason: the ideologue in him is more powerful than the story-teller. And that will be the last lesson. 

Andrew Faiz is a Toronto writer.


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