As someone who cut his teeth on the punk subculture of the late ’80s and early ’90s, I’m captivated by David Baillie’s daring debut novel What We Salvage. But I also wonder how tough it might be for those who aren’t familiar with that subculture to wade through the tangle of lingo, references, and signifiers that form the book’s rich backdrop. Don’t get me wrong — What We Salvage is by no means intended for punk audiences only. The story of a young man, his little brother, and the friends and lovers who crisscross their violent lives, What We Salvage has a poetic, emotional, universal core. At the same time, it’s a grim vision of urban alienation that pulls no punches and refuses to simplify.
At the start of the story, the unnamed narrator is a sixteen-year-old kid living in Hamilton, Ontario. His brother, nicknamed Tribal, is a year younger, and they’re embroiled in frequent street violence with gangs of racist skinheads. But Baillie isn’t interested in exploiting the stereotype of skinheads as racist neo-Nazis; although they do appear here, the book explores a broad range of skinhead subcultures — including those of the antiracist, reggae-loving variety. In fact, the subtle differences in uniform and ritual between skinhead factions become symbolic of the narrator’s constant fear and anxiety: He lives in a world where the slightest misstep in deed, word, or dress can mean a curbside stomping.
The narrator himself is a mod — think the parka-wearing, pill-popping protagonist ofQuadrophenia, the 1979 film adaptation of The Who’s classic album — whose love for The Who becomes the template for a complex personal mythos. He’s a teenage thug from a bad home, but he’s also a sensitive soul who sees the broken beauty in the world around him. And he’s able to express that damaged wonder in terms that are as lyrical and philosophical as his everyday reality is stark and harsh.