“I can see Catherine, but she cannot see me, given that I am dead and all,” our ghostly narrator tells us on page 8 of the novel, after starting a few pages prior with vague but disturbing details about a teenage trip to his Scouting leader’s camp. Matthew Collins has been dead for twenty years, but he is our guide for the small, remote world of Twenty-Six Mile House, a community in northern Ontario, in 1995.
Told through Matthew’s memories of the final summer he was alive, and his best friend Billy Buffone’s adult life, The Undertaking of Billy Buffone is the story of friendship: the bonds of childhood friends, the betrayal of trusted adults, and the lengths people go to protect and save their loved ones.
Billy Buffone is the town undertaker, taking care of the town’s dead with care and reverence. Catherine is a reverend who is relatively new to the town, and drawn to Billy not only because of practical reasons but because she senses something interesting in him. Billy, on the other hand, is living a shadow life: gave up his dream of being a doctor after Matthew died, has never really left Twenty-Six Mile House, and suffers from panic attacks. After the death of Gilbert Bearchild, a university student on his way home to the reservation next to Twenty-Six Mile House, Pickerel Lake, Billy and Catherine work together to find Gilbert’s missing brother, and Billy starts to confront his memories of Matthew.
As Billy struggles with the past, Matthew slowly tells the story of his last summer, one where he had started to drift from Billy, one where he spent time at his Scout leader, Churley’s, camp – and one where he was plied with alcohol and food before being raped by Churley.
This novel doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions of the violence the surrounds the story – though the story itself is tender and loving. I found I had to put it down a few times after Matthew revealed more of the trauma in his life and how it affected Billy as an adult. The matter-of-fact tone the ghostly Matthew takes when telling of his trauma is unnerving but also very powerful. I also enjoyed the unconventional narration: Matthew is present in the story but it’s his earthly absence that marks Billy’s journey.
This is not an easy novel to read. Matthew’s story is a small one revealing a systemic problem: the town-wide knowledge of pedophiles taking advantage of easy access to the boys in town while looking away. Matter of fact, the language and narration are a stark contrast with the content of the story. Challenging and raw, this was an engrossing read, and a nice piece of work on strong male friendships, which aren’t often written about in this kind of tender light.
(This review was based on an advanced reading copy supplied by the publisher)
David Giuliano is an award-winning writer of articles, essays, and poems. His book Postcards from the Valley: Encounters with Fear, Faith and God was a Canadian Best Seller. He has published two illustrated children’s books: The Alligator in Naomi’s Pillow and Jeremiah and the Letter e. His most recent book, It’s Good to Be Here: Stories we tell about cancer is a spiritual memoir about his 20-year journey with cancer. The Undertaking of Billy Buffone is Giuliano’s first novel. He lives in Marathon, Ontario with his wife.
- Publisher : Latitude 46 (April 17 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 220 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1988989337
- ISBN-13 : 978-1988989334
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Alison Manley bounced around the Maritimes before landing in Miramichi, NB, where she works as a hospital librarian. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. When she's not reading biomedical research for her work, she likes reading poetry, contemporary and historical fiction, and personal essays. Noted for a love of bright colours (and lipstick), you can find her wandering the banks of the Miramichi River with a book and a paintbrush.