Kaspar Pine begins his day with a simple task: replace a pet canary. By day’s end, as Kaspar is being loaded into an ambulance, he delivers one hell of a “theme essay,” covering such subjects as his ability to source and catalogue the cigarette butts he harvests; information on maintaining the social order of chickens, along with general and historic farming details that run from Saskatchewan to Ontario; insinuating himself between other kids and people who wish to do them harm; fire marshalling; and his inability to maintain an essayist’s cool detachment in the face of unrequited first love. The Union of Smokers details the heartfelt and heroic last day in the life of a reluctant, irreverent, and oddly wise hero.
I confess that I cheated a bit with this one. A book about a twelve-year-old boy, “the heroic last day in the life” according to the copy on the back, and these days I just don’t have the stomach for heartbreak, so I read the last page first to see if this was a tragedy that was survivable—for me or the character, or both, perhaps—and I determined that it was. I could take this.
So I knew what I was getting into with Paddy Scott’s The Union of Smokers, is what I mean, but did I really? In this story of Kaspar Pine, a farm kid from the outskirts of Quinton, ON, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the town of Trenton, right down to the swing bridge and the creosote plant with a propensity for catching on fire.
Not everyone takes Kaspar seriously, in fact nobody really does, except Kaspar himself. (“Getting snorted at by women is bound to happen if you’ve learned your entire repertoire of charming manoeuvres from senior citizens.”) His mother’s whereabouts are unknown, and he was brought up by his father in a kind of deprivation, until circumstances changed and he was brought to live with his maternal grandparents on a farm outside of town. They, at least, provided him with the stability and love that had been missing from his life, and a sense of identity in farming culture, which most of the people who live in town don’t properly understand.
Kaspar, a prolific smoker thanks to the collection in his butt baggie, bikes into town to replace a canary (twice) and here is where the book begins, when he meets up with Mary Lynn, love of his life, just a couple of years older, with whom years before he’d once shared a dramatic adventure while dressed in a cowboy costume, but she doesn’t remember. The two of them become yoked, and it turns out their bond is even deeper than that, although not in the way that Kaspar longs for, and Mary Lynn herself has no idea what to make of this wacky weirdo kid who won’t leave her alone and ends up using her bra as a tourniquet, but not in a sexual way.
An eccentric portrait of small town life; a narrative voice that gets in your head and proves unforgettable, a story that manages to be utterly devastating and uplifting at once thanks to a character so strangely and richly imagined, with the most indefatigable sense of himself and his story and his worth—no matter what anybody else thinks, and you’re going to take his side. Not to mention be sorry when it’s finally time to leave it. I really loved this book. - Kerry Clare
“There is no better way to lure a reader into a story than by killing off a literal canary, the extractive industry’s preferred harbinger to human health, at the very beginning. Shortly after that, a local creosote plant closes in the rural Ontario painted by Paddy Scott in his hilarious new novel, The Union of Smokers (Invisible Publishing), and it becomes apparent that death and demise will loom large in Scott’s world. It’s set in the fictional town of Quinton, based on Trenton, Ontario—think post-industrial Yoknapatawpha County, but with fewer people who might remember a time of prosperity. The battle of community versus capital (and creosote) is handled with compassionate humour. Young Kasper, the novel’s folksy, chain-smoking child narrator, waxes on his community by saying, ‘People can get trapped by their own need to survive, even if it kills them,’ and it’s hard not to think of countless dead-and-dying towns across the country. One of the most challenging things about deploying this sort of twangy and precocious Holden-Caulfield-type voice is making sure Kasper isn’t struck by moments of poetic pubescence, whether facing the state of mankind or, worse, gazing into a woman’s eyes. But Kasper’s naiveté steers the course, and like all children’s journeys, brings unexpected moments with it.”—Ryan David Allen (March 2020)