by Jesse Ruddock
Published 2017 by Coach House Press
$19.99 paperback ISBN 978-1552453407
By Noah Sanders
Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel, Shot-Blue, feels like two novels loosely stitched together. They share a locale, and the author’s deep love of describing it, a handful of characters, and the lyrical strands of familial connection. These disparate chunks ostensibly live under the same narrative umbrella, but in both style and story they differ sharply to the detriment of the novel.
Both sections of the book take place on a smattering of islands on Prioleau Lake, a remote wilderness populated by a handful of weathered locals. The first section revolves around Rachel, a single mother and sometimes prostitute, and her son Tristan, an odd kid unhealthily tethered to his sole parental unit. They stumble around the islands, picking up odd jobs—Rachel sleeps with local boater named Keb for cash—just barely skirting by. The second section finds Tristan, now alone, half-feral and living alone on the island he once called home. When a group of developers arrive to turn the island into a tourist resort, Tristan is forced to work alongside a handful of mainland youth and in doing so, slowly emerge from his shell.
The first hundred or pages or so of Shot-Blue feel like an elegiac knot, a tightly woven mass of poetic landscape descriptions with a thin narrative threaded through the center. Ruddock’s writing ability is nothing to shake a tree limb at, and she paints the landscape of the isolated northern wilds as a character in itself. Rachel, and to some degree Tristan in the early goings, are ghosts of this forested, lakeside hinterland, damaged souls disappearing back into nature. As stunning as Ruddock’s descriptions are, their vague nature in the opening chunk make the characters slippery, the reader left to sort through the tangled knots of prose struggling for purchase.
This changes when Tristan is left on his own and his one time home is torn down to make room for a glaring tourist trap. Tristan is a child of the wilderness, and as it is razed to make room for what might be called civilization, he is grudgingly forced to succumb to this new world. With no parents, and nowhere to go, Tristan becomes a guide for the new resort. Without his mother to hang on to anymore, Tristan becomes wary friends with a roughshod waitress, Tomasin, who finds her own solace in his strange, quiet commune with the natural surroundings. Ruddock’s writing relaxes as she introduces more characters, and where the opening sections of the book feel almost like prose poetry, the second feels like an alternate universe camp story, with Tristan the nebbish dork who learns a few life lessons. There are jocks and cliques and the type of boozy games only dumb teenagers partake in, and at times it feels like pitch-black adaptation of Moonrise Kingdom or any other kids-at-camp flick. It is, of course, more than that; it is a story about reemerging from the grips of childhood, and the sense of loss that accompanies it, of discovering who you are and how you fit into the world. Each character, to varying degrees, discovers themselves on the tree-lined shores of Prioleau Lake, Tristan with the greatest intensity.
This is Ruddock’s first novel though, and you can feel it in how much she wants to do. She wants to write the lyrical environment novel as much as she wants to write the classic coming-of-age story. As beautifully as she’s able to write both, they feel disconnected, and the characters, and their individual storylines suffer because of it. Characters we were led to believe were important in the first half of the book, disappear without warning—Keb, so prominent early is barely a flicker in the later bits—and Ruddock fills their void with an overabundance of far less fleshed out new characters. She isn’t able to wrangle all of them, and as the book peters to an end, many of them are left stranded, without closure. As insular and claustrophobic as this book can feel, it doesn’t dampen the author’s ambitions. She may slip on the rocks of her own aspirations, but Ruddock is gifted stylist and with her skill, she can’t be faulted for reaching up towards the blanket of stars.