Sunday, January 28, 2007

Todd Babiak: Choke Hold

Reviewed by: Leopold McGinnis

As you will soon discover, Leopold has communicated with Todd.

Turnstone Press, 237 pages. Published in 2000.

A few months ago author Todd Babiak contacted me about some disparaging remarks I had made on my site ( about his writing.

Apparently ‘his friend’ ‘who has nothing better to do with his time’ ‘got kicks out of finding places on the internet that made fun of him.’ He took issue with me off-handedly labeling his writing inane and then (passive aggressively?) asked to interview me for the Edmonton Journal.

In that interview, Todd told me he’d buy a copy of my book (Game Quest) and check it out. I didn’t believe him of course, but since he’d taken the time to do the interview (and listened to my wild rants, as well as fairly represented my opinions in his article - at least as far as a mainstream newspaper will go with any controversial opinions), and since I had sorta labeled his work inane without reading enough of it to accurately make that call, I decided to pick up a copy of his first book, Choke Hold, to find out what I really thought of Babiak’s writing.

I figured an author’s first book is a better representation of how they
write, who they are, want to be, what they want to say, etc… and the
Garneau Block was too steeped in media hoopla and its apparent ‘gimmick’ (it’s set in Edmonton!) for me to take seriously even if I tried. (In retrospect, my comments about inanity were probably more a reaction to the ridiculous hype and ingratiating Journal adds.) I thought that the premise of this book had much more promise and since it was written when Todd was unknown, I figured I could give it a more preconceptions free read.

So I read Choke Hold, about Jeremy, a martial-arts obsessed young man who returns to his small Alberta hometown after his martial arts school fails when one of his students murders a gay man. Thematically the book is about fighting, about viewing the world through fighting and how that gets in the way of living.

Plotwise, the book works fairly well. Thematically – which should arise from the plot – not so much. Babiak’s writing style is tight, personable and (what I like best) non-phoney. Character comes out very well through the text and he has a unique flair for doing quick ‘scenario’ setting – getting us physically into a scene in a very natural way. By the end of the book I found this a bit overused and unvaried, but I was impressed with it nonetheless.
Something I myself might work on.

The first half of the book was quite good and I had my hat nearby so I could eat it. The plot moved quickly, had a lot of potential, and was relatable. I’m not the sort of person who has trouble putting books down, but I ripped through the first half pretty quick. Yet, with any book you get a better sense of it the further you get into it, and about halfway through I grew less and less interested.

The vast majority of the book takes place in small-town Seymour, even though nothing really important relating to the plot happens there. Halfway through the book, several chapters seem devoted entirely to showing what goes on there (parades, fairs, etc…) without adding to the plot. There’s a friend Jeremy reacquaints himself with who adds nothing to the plot or theme, other than to make it ‘Canadian’ or ethnically balanced--and while one of the more interesting characters, still isn’t quite nteresting enough to be worth having anyway. A few pages are devoted to a couple bozo characters at a fair for no apparent reason, etc… These would be minor pace-slowing issues at this point if it weren’t for the fact that the plot had stalled and it was becoming quickly apparent that the thematic elements were going off the tracks.

Not wildly, but you felt like the train was just kind of meandering, wouldn’t get into the station on time, and you weren’t sure if it was going to arrive at the station you were promised when you got on. The thematic principle of the story is that Jeremy is an angry young man who sees everything in terms of fighting. This manifests itself in his hatred of his father, his failure to live with the woman he loves, to succeed in his business, etc… The problem is that this theme seems laid on top of the plot, rather than growing from it. The characters act as if the above is true, but the reader is never given sufficient evidence to believe it. Jeremy’s hate for his father is disproportionate to the perceived crime – his father dating an older woman Jeremy once had a crush on – and we aren’t given sufficient reason to understand or relate to Jeremy’s hate. Jeremy just seems like a passive aggressive, whiney mope. People who seem just as much interested in fighting, if not more, keep criticizing Jeremy for his interest in fighting.


The big questions that keep coming up are ‘is Jeremy gonna stay in town now that he’s back’, and ‘will he choose to be part of his family?’ These are only questions because the author keeps raising them – not because we’re asking them ourselves. Honestly, the further in I got, the less I understood why Jeremy came back at all. He doesn’t seem to like anybody, nobody is really interesting, everyone is pretty much a loser, he doesn’t like his family, have a job or anything to do. Ok, I guess he’s lost and falling back and that’s ok, but I don’t understand why his returning was a plot-driving question and had no reason to believe this was important. If I were Jeremy I’d hop the first bus out of that bumhole – Boston (where he has escaped from) was more interesting.

Furthermore, I didn’t understand why Jeremy didn’t want to be part of the family in the first place, let alone why he’d then chose (as he does in the end) to be part of it again.

I think my reaction to this can sum up my feeling of the book overall: I understood but failed to be convinced and therefore failed to care. It’s hard enough to accept Saturday Afternoon special endings in books where you really care or feel the outcome, but by the last few pages I just felt ‘meh,’ rushing through to finish. It was a typical ‘literary’ ending – kind of like the taste of the paste they give you in kindergarten to use as glue. The last line, how it’s left hanging, is great. Really great. Strangely satisfying, in its avoidance of a conclusion, but with enough of one to feel meaningful.
But it’s a small comfort after not really caring about what happens for the last 100 pages. Like a tasty burp at the end of a mediocre meal.

The book certainly isn’t bad, though. It gets originality points for being about martial arts. I thought the real potential of the book was here. There was a lot more opportunity to develop and explore this original theme. But the book quickly falls back into the dully dominating feature of all Canadian literature – small town nowhere. A lot of the exciting parts of the book happen in Boston but, because of the non-chronological nature of the book, appear near the end of the book after you already know what’s going to happen. By this point the events are distant and feel like footnotes.

Again, the writing style is good, and the first half moves nicely.
In some ways, until halfway, I thought of this book as a second coming of age story. We always get the first in lit – puberty – but people make a second big stride sometime in their twenties as they start to find out who they are, and what they think. This is rarely written about and was a big strength of the first half, but the book doesn’t take that direction in the end.

Frankly, this book is another excellent addition to the vast canon of well-crafted but passionless books in the can lit scene about small towns and understanding yourself. Choke Hold is mildly exciting, maybe even a little bit new and different, but still very safe within that genre. It’s nothing drastically new and though I’d say my opinion of Mr. Babiak’s writing is better informed and higher than where I expected it might be, it’s still well within the standard realm of Can-mush I expected it to be.

Certainly Babiak is fairly good at what he does, it’s just being done by a lot of people and doesn’t feel very…what’s the word…thrilling. No offense to Todd – it’s not like he needs my approval, you can’t walk ten paces in Edmonton right now without finding someone fawning over the Garneau Block. You can’t please everyone – and I’m hard to please.

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