Michael Murphy, A Description of the Blazing World

The debut novel by Haligonian Michael Murphy comes out with both fists swinging. A tough, two-pronged tale about thwarted endings—one marital, one more generally apocalyptic—A Description of the Blazing World doesn’t waste any time getting us acquainted with its damaged heroes, or with the sweaty, disorienting metropolis (early-21st-century Toronto) that serves as its backdrop.

In one corner is Morgan Wells, a disgruntled professional paper shredder whose wife has left him for reasons he can’t bring himself to revisit in any detail. Instead, he develops an unlikely hobby: after accidentally receiving a postcard addressed to a different Morgan Wells, he vows to track down everyone else in the city who shares his name. Stalking and mail tampering aren’t far behind.

In the other corner is a nameless teenage boy sent to live with his oafish brother and incongruously attractive sister-in-law. The citywide 2003 blackout takes place just after he arrives in town, which, to his death-obsessed brain, is an obvious sign that Armageddon is nigh. His new obsession is not names, but books: the journalistic tome he plans to write about the blackout, as well as the 17th-century science-fiction novel he finds stashed behind a cutlery drawer.

This first half of Murphy’s own book is so good—laying all the groundwork for a moody, unpredictable page-turner with some serious literary heft behind it—that in a way it’s no wonder the rest can’t measure up. By the time our heroes are waist-high in their respective schemes, the pace has dropped right off; worse, Morgan and his teenage counterpart shed most of their distinguishing personality traits, instead settling into the same overly familiar violent-loner type.

Then again, I’m not all that bothered by endings anyway—and there are so many inspired moments to be savoured before you get to this one. Murphy’s dark wit is never more on-point than at moments like the one when the teenager scowls at a cashier, imagining the “garbage bag full of fast food under his Iron Maiden T-shirt”; it feels like an observation beamed straight in from that character’s id.

Same goes for the teenager’s love-hate relationship with his family, which is more than partly inspired by the fact that, when you get right down to it, he remains utterly dependent on them: “[My mother] bakes the best banana bread I’ve ever tasted,” he admits, “but I hate her choices.”

Freehand Books, 240 pp, $21.95, paperback

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, June 16, 2011)

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