JUST BENEATH MY SKIN by Darren Greer (Cormorant), 215 pages, $21 paper. Rating: NNN
Darren Greer (Still Life With June) brings his muscular prose and clear-eyed perspective to this story about good people trying to make sound choices in the face of bad people who want to get in their way.
Jake has just returned to North River, a destitute small town in the Maritimes, with a plan to reconnect to his eight-year-old son, Nathan. His hope is that he can take him away from his drunk mother, Carla.
Soon, all the reasons he'd fled to Halifax in the first place start to impinge on the plan. Carla's as shrewish as ever and not very accommodating, and his old friends - who spend a lot of time getting stoned - have developed a deep resentment of Jake: he's one of the lucky ones who might get away. Especially dangerous is loose-cannon sociopath Johnny.
The story's told in short, episodic chapters from alternating perspectives, Nathan's and Jake's, and shifts in time between the present and Jake's backstory with his preacher dad and cancer-stricken mom. Greer has a good grip on the narrative, expertly building tension and our hope that Jake and Nathan can escape.
It's too bad Greer only flirts with Jake's First Nations background, developing it only in the context of his spirit-driven dreams that tend to come true. And Jake's such a cool guy. How did he get involved with someone as messed up as Carla?
I'm a major fan of Greer's Still Life With June, a taut urban novel also about troubled characters. Just Beneath The Skin demonstrates his insight and strong sense of place, but it's less original when it comes to the characters and their situations.