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Full review in the Globe and Mail

Freaks like us
By JIM BARTLEY
Saturday, August 20, 2005

You've heard of army brats. Gertie Kempt takes the figurative out of the brat. Throbbing along the back roads of the Ottawa Valley in her dad's muscle car, she's a brash and reckless mentor to her malleable younger brother, Herb.

In John-James Ford's assured, often disturbing debut — a boot-camp bildungsroman — Herb's journey toward a soldier's manhood is impelled largely by deep and ambivalent love for his rebel sister.

Their father (the "Kernel") is a coiled spring, unwound nightly by gin. Tense after a long day at National Defence Headquarters, he erupts in upper-case during dinner: "THERE'S ABSOLUTELY NO REASON YOU NEED TO USE SO MUCH MILK ON A DAILY BASIS." Alternatively, he's quiet and menacing: "I'm always at the ready … I can see through the bullcrap, my son."

Gertie is the family peacenik. Rejecting meat, she describes slaughterhouse techniques at dinner. One day she comes home with some liberated chickens. Within days, dad has blown them to red mist with his shotgun. When Gertie checks out, heading to a B.C. commune, Herb loses his anchor on sanity. One night, on the edge, he cranks up the volume on a recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

"I was no longer Ottawa Valley Irish, but came from hard Russian stock … I had no time to stop for fallen comrades … [and] there was Gertie, waiting for me, torn and ravaged and ragged, but weeping tears of joy at this reunion with her brother, her comrade, her poet-warrior."

Tension builds until, late one night, burned toast and too much gin push dad over the edge. Herb stands up to his father's bullying with eloquent indignation and earns a head-first flight into the kitchen drywall. As the crisis builds and explodes, Ford negotiates the labyrinth of emotions with prose that enters the mind, not like fine writing but simply and powerfully, like all the things it evokes: volcanic anger, sorrow, aching regret.

"Our house was a goddamn freakshow," Herb tells us. It's impossible not to agree. What Ford does, with great sensitivity, is to make the freaks recognizable, and their life sentence an extension of the one we know. The book is filled with hyperbole and dark comedy, but not a hint of the cartoonish. Ford couldn't be more attuned to the tragic potential in petty resentments and the inability to express love.

Absurdly, and completely convincingly, Herb attempts to escape his father by embracing the ironclad certainties of the military. After he's accepted at boot camp for officers, the Royal Military College in Kingston, the real nightmare begins.

Things happen at Ford's RMC that, had they been reported from Abu Ghraib, would only have magnified the scandal. But these lost boys are fellow warriors and the shocks have a purpose: the making of unquestioning killers. Can it be as brutal at RMC as Ford implies? Ford makes it seem plausible. He was also a student there. Only graduates — and those who fled — will know where his imagination takes over.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.