Content Warnings: Sexual violence, substance abuse, misogyny, animal abuse.
“She suspected John would try to colonize every aspect of her character so that he could accredit himself with anything worthwhile later. Early on, before the truly horrid had happened, Iris was concerned that John could not care less about what she was really like as long as this impersonation woman he preferred to her was believable.”
As a storm blows into St. John’s on Valentine’s Day, at the heart of a brutally cold February on the bay, the staff of The Hazel restaurant are preparing for service despite the weather. But another more personal storm front hangs over the dining room. John, the restaurant’s chef, has been conducting a precarious affair with Iris, the hostess, under the nose of his wife, who bankrolls the business. Damian, fresh off a breakup with his boyfriend, has arrived to his shift hung over, and without the patience to deal with the two increasingly wasted customers who take up position at the bar as lunch service begins. Outside, Olive watches it all from the cold winter streets of St. John’s, near-homeless because she cannot return to an apartment on which she has not paid the month’s rent. The Hazel is a house of cards ready to come crashing down, and a storm is blowing in.
I’m having a hard time doing this novel justice, so let’s start with the positive; Megan Gail Coles can write beautifully, turning out some stark gems of highly polished prose. Everything is carefully described, and her characters are incisively drawn. That being said, I didn’t find this at all pleasant to read. It probably doesn’t help that I started it in early March, as the COVID-19 crisis was picking up steam, and everything was changing by the day. When it was announced on March 13 that Canada Reads 2020 was being postponed, I threw this book down with relief, and didn’t return to it until last week, wanting to finish out the final quarter before the debates aired. With a measure more focus than I had back in March, I was able to handle the widely ranging narration, and the fact that the author eschews quotation marks or dialogue tags, and get past that somewhat to appreciate her characterization and themes.
Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club takes place over the course of a single day, divided by the cycle of the restaurant into Prep, Lunch, and Dinner. The narrative perspective shifts at will among the various characters, often descending deep into their stream of consciousness before shifting to the next. Each character is distinctive, some of them employing various degrees of Newfoundland dialect, which helps anchor the sense of place. By and large, these are not pleasant people, and I would be relieved to leave one behind when the perspective shifted, only to find the next person was equally nasty company. It isn’t terribly enjoyable to be inside their heads, but I can’t say the author didn’t warn me. “This might hurt a little. Be brave,” reads the epigraph with which Coles opens the book.
Pulsing beneath the humdrum events of the day is a deep current of misogyny. Toxic masculinity runs rampant amongst the male characters, and as we get to know Iris and Olive, their abuse at the hands of the men around them is slowly revealed. Iris’s ill-advised affair with her boss is crumbling, and John is actively planning how he will gaslight and discredit her if she reveals anything to his wife, Georgina. At the bar, we have Roger and Calv, two long-time friends with a complicated history. The women in his life—from his wife, to his mother, to his sister—are always telling Calv to dump Roger, but he can’t quite seem to cut the cord, even as he becomes increasingly complicit in Roger’s misdeeds. Georgina, known as George, a woman with a man’s name, is also tellingly complicit in her husband’s behaviour; Iris is not the first staff member at her restaurant that John has taken liberties with while she looked the other way.
Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by YouTube star Alayna Fender, known online as Alayna Joy. Fender mounted an impassioned defense of her book in the face of deep resistance to the writing style and subject matter, particularly from the male panelists. Both Akil Augustine and George Canyon consistently voted against the book on the first two days of debate, with discussion becoming quite heated. At the opening of the third day, Canyon began by apologizing for chiding the women panelists as “girls, girls, girls,” when his book, From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle, was eliminated yesterday in a vote that broke along gender lines.
Host Ali Hassan focused the third day of debates around setting, character, resilience and hope, while trying to steer the panel firmly clear of the fiction vs. non-fiction debate that dominated day two. This focus on literary elements led to a less contentious debate, and brought up new aspects of the remaining books that had not been previously discussed. Samra from We Have Always Been Here seemed to appeal broadly to the panelists, while Canyon felt there were too many characters in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club for him to relate strongly to any particular one, which Kaniehtiio Horn echoed. Alayna Fender attempted to parlay this into a strength, arguing in her rebuttal that the beauty of the book lies in the way it ties many stories together, showing how each issue is connected.
The final question of the day addressed resilience, and which book best embodied that idea. Alayna Fender highlighted the resilience of Iris and Olive, but part way through the discussion, host Ali Hassan redirected the panel towards the idea of hope, and what relationship that has to resilience. This seemed to resonate with George Canyon, who felt that Samra from We Have Always Been Here was the character from the remaining books that gave him hope. However, panelist Akil Augustine firmly rejected this idea, saying that hope bears no connection to the work that needs to be done. Alayna Fender also pushed back against the idea of tidy endings, arguing that a happy ending can leave the reader feeling complacent, whereas a more nuanced ending leaves the reader knowing that there is work yet to be done.
After three rounds of debate and discussion, when the ballots were in, and the votes were read, both Akil Augustine and George Canyon stuck firmly to their earlier positions, voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. Defender Alayna Fender, who was obviously not going to vote against her own book, cast her ballot against Son of a Trickster. However, both Amanda Brugel and Kaniehtiio Horn joined the rest of the panel in voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, despite Brugel’s expressed love for the book, thus making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020.