Sweetland is about a dying island near Newfoundland. The protagonist’s name is also Sweetland: Moses Sweetland. He’s 70, and while the rest of the townsfolk have taken a government payoff to evacuate the island, Sweetland, the man, has decided he isn’t going anywhere. When your name is the same as the land where you’ve always lived, leaving would mean death.
In the beginning—the first 80 or 100 pages—I really didn’t think I was going to make it through this. I did not like the character of Sweetland. Everything he said and thought seemed tinged with that problem that affects kids and the elderly in books and movies: It seems too cute. It all felt pseudo-philosophical, salt-of-the-earth, everything-I-say-might-be-the-last-thing-I-say, so you better listen. I instinctively resisted the “listen to me because I’m old and wise” feel of the book. Old people are usually just as stupid as the rest of us.
Compounding the old-person-as-philosopher problem was the fact that people from Newfoundland speak in a different English than I’m used to. There is no equivalent in my dictionary for words like “gannets” and “blear.” Though it is a very nautical culture, which I liked, steeped in the world of fishing. As an example of all this, take this short paragraph that begins chapter 3:
The ferry sailed by the breakwater through a blear of rain. The ocean beyond in an uproar. The deckhands hunched in neon-yellow slickers as they threw down the hawsers and winched the gangplank to the government wharf.
There were many times I felt like I needed a translator, as if I was watching a British movie where all of the dialogue is spoken in thick Cockney dialect. That, and the writer had the annoying—for me—habit of those sentence fragments that seemed to be made popular with that other book about Newfoundland, The Shipping News. “The ocean beyond in an uproar” isn’t a sentence, so if you are conservative about literary custom (which I seem to be, though I’m liberal in almost every other area), don’t bother with this book because you’ll be steaming to the point of explosion by page 20.
I may have made it sound like I hated Sweetland—that isn’t true. There were some obstacles, but the writing is so genuine and, I don’t know how else to put this, “quiet,” I just sort of fell into it, eventually, like a warm shower after a day in the cold.
I don’t know why the Canadian government is buying out the residents of Sweetland (that might be another thing lost in translation to me), but they are, and as important as the land is, I never get a sense of the scale of the island, or the topography. But besides that—though Christmas will be long over when this book comes out—it is perfect for reading on the couch by the fire while your extended family is buzzing around. It’s a calm book. Good for the soul. Like the sea.
Since, as I write this, Christmas is right around the corner, I can’t help thinking about the first Christmas I spent behind bars.
I had been in for two months, but I remember a week when I was coming off opiates. Here’s why it took two months to withdrawal: I had been trying to get off heroin for nearly a year before being locked up. I had a prescription for Suboxone from a doctor in Chicago. In my belongings at the jail was the bottle, and no one in the health department knew what Suboxone was. They might know what it is now, but ten years ago, they didn’t, so they gave me one every day, which I took sublingually to stave off withdrawals.
The bad thing about opiates is that they never last forever, and eventually the Suboxone ran out. My partner, Kim, tried to get a refill from the prescribing doctor, but it’s such a controlled substance, 1) You can’t prescribe it over the phone, and 2) You can’t fill it in a state different from the one it’s prescribed in. It was all over, and the next week (if you ever want to slow time to a crawl combine Christmas, with the county jail, with opiate withdrawal) was worse than I could have ever imagined.
The physical symptoms, for me, always paled in comparison to the mental torture of withdrawal. I had a flu tinged with insanity, not to mention being away from everyone I loved. But the thing is, I’ve learned, if you can just hold on, something will happen, some miracle.
I remember sitting on my top bunk, staring out toward the hall where the TV was bolted to the wall, and an officer came by with paper lunch bags of Christmas treats for everyone. “Merry Christmas!” he said. I don’t remember at all what was in the sack, but it was such a surprise, so shocking in its unexpected altruism—well, it’s hard to say what a gesture like this does for a person so low.
Shortly thereafter, I received an uplifting letter from an old friend who had heard about where I was, and wanted to let me know I was still a good person. And I made it through that Christmas. And I’ll make it through this one, and hopefully many more.