Roughneck

The nice, although not unexpected thing, about reading through the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival book list is that I’m reading titles I never would have picked up.

Roughneck, by Jeff Lemire, has a few things going against it which would have ensured under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have read it. It’s a graphic novel (I draw the line at Jessica Jones and Buffy titles. Once, I read one about Anita Blake. There were vampires.). Roughneck set in small town Canada (grew up there, holds no allure). It’s about hockey. Kind of. I’m a bad Canadian and have negative interest in hockey.

Let’s address the graphic novel thing. My primary issue with graphic novels is I can almost never tell what panel to read next. So I appreciate Lemire’s linear panel order. I believe in readability. On the internet, in graphic novels. I know I’m being petty.

Small towns. This one is waaaay up north in Ontario. That part is new. Small town BC, more south than north, means a different vibe. I love Lemire’s illustrations of this town, Pimitamon. Fictional. I checked. It looks real and familiar, like whispers of towns I drove through once on my way to Whitehorse. The illustrations, done in blue and black, remind me of driving through forests in the dark and capture the feeling of isolation exists on distant, unfamiliar roads.

Hockey turns out to be a non issue, aside from a few scenes in a hockey rink and reference to a former career. My fears were unfounded.

Graphic novels need a questionable protagonist. Derek Ouelette serves this purpose. He’s a washed out pro hockey player prone to violence and drinking. His existence is pretty substandard. He fights. He gets thrown out of the town’s bar. He loses his keys. He argues. Fights again. Drinks again.  

“I was never really a hockey player … I was just a thug. At least now I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not,” Ouelette says. Self awareness in an anti-hero is always good.

Then his long lost sister shows up with her own troubles following just behind her on the road. Her’s are more pervasive: an abusive boyfriend and drugs.

Together, the siblings need to find their way back to themselves, and each other. This is not a new story. Even so, I found myself rooting for Derek and Beth. They have their own sense of right and wrong and justice. They deserved better than they got.

Jeff Lemire was in Events 75 (Writing Canada 2) and 82 (An Intimate Evening with Jeff Lemire) of the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.

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