Tristan is always alone. Sure, there are people around him, names and voices that float in and out of Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel. These characters bounce questions and attempts at intimacy off of Tristan’s young, dark sensibility. But other than his mother, gone early from his life, they don’t get far.
Tristan’s childhood, lived in poverty alongside his mother, gives way to an adolescence in a fictional lake community called Prioleau, located somewhere northeast from Tristan’s home. The book takes place in the kind of non-era that only fishermen and the rural poor can render convincing. Life in Prioleau is dependent upon the whims of the ever-present lake, and the various relationships of the town’s denizens remain at the mercy of nature’s unexpected influences.
Ruddock – a native of Guelph, Ontario, now based in New York – depicts Tristan carefully, always testing the character’s stoic responses against a surreal and sensitive internal poetry. A strange, chatty girl named Tomasin begins to break through to him over the course of her summer stay in the town, but the presence of a few other young men and women quickly push the two apart.
Shot-Blue is very serious, self-aware, and literary. It never seems to land anywhere in particular, preferring to float slowly and poetically along. The author is talented, with a penchant for paradox and a yen for examining the backward logic that guides our daily anxieties. “Every time [Marie] cut cherries, the stain washed off, but that never stopped her from wondering if this time it wouldn’t,” Ruddock writes at one point, in an example of the way she seeks to make the familiar profound.
The spare, quietly conflicted tone spills over into the dialogue, much of which feels evasive and strange. Characters talk through each other, always implying some level of alternate, undefined thought. An enigmatic conversation between Tomasin and her post-Tristan fixation, Stella, offers a good example of this: “You remind me of so many things it makes me sick.” “You’re supposed to keep your eyes shut to rest them.” “I died young, you know. But it’s not tragic.” Every spoken word feels heavy, dragging down the pace of the story. Following along becomes a bit exhausting and a bit confusing, perhaps the way life itself can be.