Fiction Review by Susan Sanford Blades

Missy Marston, Bad Ideas (Toronto: ECW, 2019). Paperbound, 258 pp., $18.95.

Bad IdeasIn October 1979, Ken “The Mad Canadian” Carter was slated to attempt a mile-long jump across the St. Lawrence River at Morrisburg, Ontario in a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental. Missy Marston based her second novel, Bad Ideas, off of this real-life failed attempt at glory. The book takes place in Preston Mills, Ontario, a “scrubby shit-town clinging to the bank of the cold grey St. Lawrence river” and centres around Trudy, a woman stuck in Preston Mills raising her runaway sister’s daughter, Mercy. Trudy works the night shift at the WestMark Linen Mill sewing pillowcases and has lived a celibate existence (except for a slip-up one night with a persistent loser) until stuntman Jules Tremblay waltzes into her life.

Early on, Marston explains to us that “to get to the truth…you had to tell the story right. You had to try to explain the feelings you had when you did the wrong things.” This modus operandi for the novel holds true, for the most part. This book provides a thorough look at the conflicting desires that make up the human condition—Tammy, the runaway sister, wants “to be loved and left alone,” her daughter Mercy wants her own room but to not be left alone in the dark—and at how we resign ourselves to the lives we stumble into. Every one of these characters has tried and failed to find their own sense of freedom, to re-write their stories, but find themselves stuck nonetheless. Tammy runs away from the daughter she had as a teenager only to end up trapped in a town thirty miles away working as a topless waitress and living with a spineless man, “crazy as a loon,” who’d worn “away at her like sandpaper on a board until…she couldn’t imagine her life without him anymore.” Despite leading a (mostly) celibate life in order to avoid her mother’s mistakes, Trudy lives in her mother’s house, raising her sister’s child. Claire gave her life over to love with a married man only to spend most of her life pining after him, raising their daughters on her own. Jules Tremblay wants to conclude an unremarkable existence with a daring—most would say impossible—stunt. Instead, he’s trapped in the whirlwind he’s created, even  though he has fallen in love with Trudy and now has a reason to live, and to not follow through with the jump.

The entire novel is set up as a response to the call of “Why do they do it?” presented as a foreword to the book. The question is pointed at reckless men, regarding their thoughtless actions, but also to Trudy, because these are the men she falls for (even though, as far as we are aware, she hasn’t fallen in love until she meets Jules Tremblay in the beginning of this book). Every chapter begins with a “Because” title, which become tiresome, partly because there are so many (most chapters are under three pages long) and partly because most don’t actually respond to the initial call.

The structure of this novel is at once its strength and weakness. Its short chapters, told from all characters’ points of view (though we mainly stick with Trudy’s), allow the reader to feel empathy for all characters, to see all sides of each situation, but the perspective is as shallow as it is broad, like skipping stones across a river. I would have liked to have had a greater sense of the characters’ motivations. Why does Trudy throw away her celibacy one night with that loser, Jimmy? Why does she think no one ever loves her enough if she’s never been in love? How did she go from disavowing men to falling hard for Jules because he had “dark brown eyes and eyelashes like a girl”?

For a book centred on female characters, it provides a surprisingly simplistic portrayal of women’s relationships to one another and the world around them. Trudy is described as having “the kind of body that caused no end of trouble,” while Claire has “made enemies of most of the girls in Preston Mills” due to her “being sexy candy.” I would have appreciated Marston diving deeper into the murky intricacies of love, respect, and jealousy between women, especially concerning body image, and the “male gaze” women can subject other women—and themselves—to. She does touch on this at one point, when Claire wrestles with her slide from sexy to dowdy, in front of the bathroom mirror, seeing her frumpy bra as a reflection of her self. “Her beige bra was greying. When had she started wearing beige bras?” Before leaving the bathroom, she thinks, “Two seconds ago she was Marilyn Monroe. Now she was Phyllis Diller.” Claire’s alternate love and hatred for her appearance rings true to female self-perception, especially as we age.

All in all, this is a novel well-told, with palpable tension surrounding Jules Tremblay’s will-he/won’t-he jump across the St. Lawrence. Marston nails the ending, although a few of the incidents leading up to it seem a bit too cinematic, too perfectly tied up. I’d suggest watching the NFB film about the real-life jump, The Devil at your Heels,before digging into this novel to make an enjoyable reading experience even more so.


—Susan Sanford Blades

As in The Malahat Review, 208, Autumn 2019