Sex, drugs and pyromania: 'The Green Hotel' exposes Toronto's underbelly

First time author, Jesse Gilmour was introduced to the Canadian arts scene as a subject of a book instead of as a writer. His father, the infamous David Gilmour, wrote the memoir The Film Club, which talks about their relationship around the time when Jesse dropped out of high school.

Jesse Gilmour's debut novel The Green Hotel follows another father-son relationship of drug-addicted arsonist Hayden and his mentally ill father on their last night together in Toronto. One can guess the novel was not likely inspired by the relatively tame relationship between Jesse and David Gilmour. It is from a darker place. 

That fateful last night is built concretely around Toronto's urban landscape and the reader is whisked along with the characters. Hayden and his father live in a loft a few blocks from Chinatown, which becomes the main setting for the story.

The story is not static, moving the reader through the distinct neighbourhoods of Toronto, echoing the fast pace of the city and the chaos of the story.

The reader takes a weltering tour across the city. From the ritzy Uptown area, to a date Hayden once had with a girl on Bloor Street, to a trip to Queen Street Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) with his pajama-clad father.

A major appeal of The Green Hotel is that it is relatable to anyone who knows or wants to know Toronto.

However, Gilmour creates Toronto through the eyes of a deadbeat -- a perspective not seen by many. Yet, Gilmour's sleazier substratum of Toronto is still home, still a familiar, seedy home.

The less than 24-hour whirlwind of sex, drugs and lighter fluid drops a ton of emotional firebombs on the reader. The reader learns in less than 115 pages everything about these two that would bring them to this end. 

As troubling and confusing as this father-son relationship may be, while not always relatable, it is undoubtedly compelling. For example, out of jealousy and a desire to set himself apart from his father, Hayden delves into pyromania.

"Sometimes I can't tell the difference between us," Hayden says to his father. "When I look die I want to look back and see me…so that's why I light the fires. That's why I do it."

It is a confusing argument, but the emotion Gilmour puts into these words makes it work. When a character acts out of desperation oftentimes irrationality becomes reasonable, becomes understandable. Gilmour forces the reader to at least understand Hayden's manic struggle for self-definition, but inserting small details of love and hate, like when Hayden sits for his father to paint him as he was struggling internally with frustration towards his father's "selfishness" and mental illness.

And this is where Gilmour shines. He is able to take a greater look into the minds of his characters in a shorter space than many of the other books I've read.

Did I like everything I saw in Hayden or his father? Hell no. But they're human (and we all have a little darkness in us) and Gilmour paints this beautifully.

While Hayden might blame his lack of purpose and direction on his father, he is nonetheless a nobody, but a nobody that I feel I know. From that he became a real person, regardless of the short time I spent with him.

Each of Gilmour's characters are fully formed, incredibly human and above all given dignity.

Perhaps my favourite character is the old Chinese woman who collects empty bottles in their neighbourhood. She is a constant and therefore comforting presence in Hayden's life. So constant that as a boy, Hayden and his father would wait on their porch to give her their empty bottles -- she provides a calm during the chaos of their life.

The book addresses themes of addiction, love and loss, all cloaked in an extended religious metaphor: Father, Son and holy spirits. What binds Hayden and his father are not only their shared experiences but their shared addiction. His father an alcoholic and he himself a user of nearly every conceivable substance.

The reader might not completely understand Hayden's desires, but it is accepted.

And this is why The Green Hotel will leave you with (at least in my case) soggy eyes and a case of the sads. But, as Hayden admits and we must remember, everything will be okay even when we're down and out. "And that's ok," says Hayden "In the end that's ok."

 

Lauren Scott is the books intern for rabble.ca and is currently studying Journalism at Carleton University. She loves post-modern literature and anything with a bit of sass. Originally from a small town just outside of Toronto, Lauren now lives in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter @laurenscawt

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