A REVIEW OF
WHITETAIL SHOOTING GALLERY
BY LORI GARRISON
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Issue 4 | February 15, 2013
When you shoot a deer, one of the first things you do is cut around the anus and tie it off like a balloon. This ensures that the things on the inside of the animal’s guts--partially digested food, bile, shit and its associated bacterial load—don't come spilling out and contaminate your steaks, ground chuck and rump roast. It's a messy, awkward affair, no matter how many times you do it, and you always walk away smelling like a slaughterhouse and thinking to yourself I just cut the asshole out of an animal. Later when you're having a beer and eating a venison strip loin, it doesn't seem like such a big deal, but you never quite forget about it. Reading Annette Lapointe's aptly titled novel Whitetail Shooting Gallery is like living that moment—gruesome, everything inside on the outside, visceral and somehow impossibly human—over and over again, every time you open it, which is all the damn time, since you can't put it down once you pick it up.
Carefully crafted and uncomfortably real, Lapointe opens her work in medias res with a near-fatal gunshot to the face and moves directly into only slightly-less serious topics like insanity, sexual experimentation, divorce, the failed life-styles of the 60's, and incest. Set against the cold-yet-fertile backdrop of the Saskatchewan prairies, the narrative spins dizzily around two cousins—Jason and Jennifer—who can't seem to be in the same room together without some bodily fluid being exchanged, be it blood, spit or semen. The two grow up amid a motley cast of overweight but irresistibly powerful lesbians, lawyers with the smell of animals perpetually embedded in their clothes, cross-dressing mad men who claim to be Coyote the Trickster spirit, and alcoholic artists who mould statues of rotund vagina dentata, “girls with teeth in their cunts.” Coupled with extreme isolation, social intolerance and a complete lack of hope for anyone who tries to stay behind in their one-horse-ten-meth-lab home town, Jason and Jennifer attempt to reconcile their needs—both human and animal—while trying to maintain something akin to sanity in the process.
Deeply and distinctly Canadian in its peoples and places, Whitetail Shooting Gallery will make the most sense to anyone who's ever seen the prairies in winter time. While the endless cold, snow and desolation may not immediately call to mind the southern “horse-romances” of our American counterparts, the work is decidedly a Western in both its frank, realistic style and its landscape. Focusing on the decline of the rural way of life, Whitetail Shooting Gallery takes the dreamy myth of rural Canadian living— picturesque cottages, happy cows and peaceful afternoons watching the sun go down— and dismisses it as saccharine romanticism. For anyone who has ever lived in a small, Northern Canadian town, the entire work will feel, uncomfortably, like going home for Christmas when you'd really rather not.
Rife with sex, violence and the unspoken beast within us all, Whitetail Shooting Gallery is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a testament to the continuous and often unspoken war between the sexes taking place daily. To her credit, Lapointe makes no one gender the hero or villain; in this grey and backwater world, country girls are just as likely to break your nose or molest a boy as country boys are to mishandle firearms and stalk their would-be lovers. Violence and sex go hand in hand in the novel, and, while the book is deeply invested in the internal and external interactions between men and women, women and women and men and men, it never mentions love. Whitetail Shooting Gallery is perhaps as far from a romantic tale as a work of fiction can get without reducing itself to pornography. The predatory viciousness with which the residents of this stark Saskatchewan landscape peruse—or run from—each other feels more like Darwinian combat than sexual or romantic conquest, lending the work a continuous, pervasive sense of unidentifiable dread on every page, like the sensation of being watched. In Whitetail Shooting Gallery, sex and the trouble it causes might just be both the protagonist and the villain.
While evocative and sharply written, it should be noted that Whitetail Shooting Gallery, like deer hunting, is probably not for everyone. The novel leaps from one carnal misdemeanour to another, lunging through mine fields of sexual ambiguity, homosexuality, paedophilia, incest, fetish pornography and every other personal eccentricity one could think of that might contain the words balls, dick, vagina or tongue. In a way, the story is a lot like a misfired snuff-film run backwards, with the violence taking place at the beginning and setting the field of play for the rest of the work. While Lapointe excels at handling the gruesome details of these sexual minefields with a blunt, wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am style that often leaves the reader's head spinning, a reader with moral proclivities that aim for something approximating “good taste” would be better off with “Dirty Old Man” Charles Bukowski than Annette Lapointe, which is really saying something.
While gripping, the novel is not without its failures. Lapointe's prose is delightfully sparse and stylish, but her plot structure is often overly elaborate and confused, doubling back on itself and repeating similar episodes that at first appear symbolic but lose their edge with seemingly meaningless repetition, leaving the reader wondering exactly where this is all going. The answer, unfortunately, is that the novel seems to be going nowhere, even as the characters age and whole portions of their life slip away in technology fuelled mediocrity. In a way, that's sort of the point—everyone and everything is going nowhere in a world that speeds by without meaning and without virtue. This poignant and by-times painful theme appears to rush both Jennifer and Jason toward some sort of great understanding or action—and then it is simply finished. The novel ends without anything ever having been accomplished, with no resolutions made and nothing really having changed from the beginning. The book doesn't really end so much as stop, abruptly, as if Lapointe herself wasn't really sure where any of this was going in the first place and had to quickly and awkwardly find a position from which she could draw the work to a close. It's a poorly crafted and highly unsatisfying ending to an otherwise spell-binding work.
Beguiling, at times hilarious and at times disturbing, Whitetail Shooting Gallery is not the kind of book you take with you to read at the beach—there is nothing “light” or “fun” about this work. It might better be read curled up in a dark corner of your apartment in the middle of winter, where you can be sure you have a full pot of coffee and something resembling privacy. This is a novel best read alone, and an absolute must read for anyone who has the stomach for a little blood and lot of introspection.
LORI GARRISON is a reviewer, poet, and writer whose work has appeared in Capital Xtra!, Bywords Magazine and various anthologies. A general vagabond with no fixed address, she currently resides in Toronto, where she lives with an aloe vera plant and her dog, Herman.