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Sunday Book Review: Jim Williams's "Rock Reject"

1970s asbestos mine is setting for protagonist in search of salvation

by Miles Howe

"Rock Reject" by Jim Williams.
"Rock Reject" by Jim Williams.

Picture it: 1970s Canada. Our protagonist, Peter, is a privileged man-boy from Toronto. His path is all laid out for him: med school, loving young wife, a starched-collar father. But like so many young white men, Peter has to destroy his whole world just to realize the gifts he was given.

And destroy it he does.

Author Jim Williams sends poor Peter through a series of tribulations, and at each turn Peter manages to muck up his own situation in such a failing fashion that the reader is almost faced with a protagonist with whom it's impossible to empathize. And Peter isn't just ruining his own life. Not by a long shot.

When his self-created tragedy strikes, poor Peter runs as far and as fast from the scene as he can, and winds up in a Yukon asbestos mine. It's a harrowing hell on Earth, an attempt at suicide of sorts and our hard-to-like protagonist buries himself in the rough comfort and sense-numbing exhaustion that comes with a singular commitment to back-breaking labour. One gets the sense that Peter works in order to destroy himself or, at the very least, to escape himself.

Of course, no matter where you go, there you are deep in the Earth's bowels, and Peter must inevitably come to terms with what he has done. A rag-tag world of hard-luck miners surround Peter, and despite his best efforts at the pariah-like isolation he feels he deserves, a world of dreamers and schemers begins to open up around him.

Buoyed on by Williams's cross-Canada cornucopia of characters, Peter rekindles his purpose, and finds a home in the labour struggles that surround him. The union becomes a surrogate parent, in which Peter finally finds a means by which to apply his education, his privilege. The asbestos the men are mining is slowly killing them; management is covering it all up; and up in Stikine, deep in the Yukon, Peter is the only one who can bring the damning proof to light.

Williams give Peter a second chance at finding a moral compass, and despite my best efforts to give up on Peter as an un-salvageable piece of human detritus, I found myself begrudgingly rooting for his efforts when applied to the larger struggle. It's a testament to Williams's writing abilities that even a character as initially morally reprehensible as Peter can gain some measure of salvation. It's also a testament to the potential value of unions in a worker's life.

Rock Reject (Roseway Publishing) is the 2011 winner of the Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature.

Author Jim Williams will be reading from Rock Reject at the Keshen Goodman Library, 330 Lacewood Drive, Halifax, on Nov. 6 at 7 p.m.

Got a book you want to review? Want a book to review? Email hmc@mediacoop.ca, and we'll get you some great reading material!

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