Canary by Duane Swierczynski
February 24, 2015
College is supposed to be about bad judgment. This is a time in our lives when we can stay out all hours of the night and still make it to that 8 AM history final. I went to college. I made some bad decisions, but mine pale in comparison to those made by Duane Swierczynski’s heroine in his latest novel, CANARY. Sarie Holland takes bad judgment to a whole new level.
Sarie’s life takes a dramatic turn after she gives her boyfriend a ride after a party. Turns out the boyfriend was a low level drug dealer and the Philadelphia Narcotics unit had an interest in his supplier. When honors student Sarie turns confidential informant, understanding NAKED LUNCH by William S. Burroughs is the least of her worries. The college freshman becomes a fast study of how the criminal mind works and she starts to work for both sides: the police and the dealers. Sarie gets tangled up with bad professors, the mafia, and crooked cops.
CANARY reminded me why I love reading Duane Swierczynski’s books. CANARY is not told as a straight first or third person narrative. Swierczynski tells the story through a series of Sarie’s journal entries to her deceased mom and third person narratives through the eyes of the rest of the cast of characters. Each non-journal entry is told from the point of view of one the supporting characters: Sarie’s dad, her brother, and the narcotics officer she’s working with, to name a few. These vignettes give the reader insight into these characters instead of telling the entire story from Sarie’s viewpoint.
To say Swierczynski writes women, like Sarie, well would be short changing all of the other characters he writes well. Let’s just go with, Swierczynski knows how to write people. They could be life-long mobsters, crazy drug lords, or college freshmen women, Duane makes each one unique and each character has their own voice.
For example, narcotics officer Ben Wildey (pronounced will-dee. This is a serious point of contention with the officer) lives in a rough part of Philadelphia, but he hopes that a police officer just being in the neighborhood will be a start to turn his city around. He comes from a long line of Philly police officers, some were good guys and others weren’t as good. You get a better understanding of how big Wildey’s heart is when he has Thanksgiving dinner with his elderly Auntie M, his only living family member. Auntie M suffers from dementia and usually doesn’t remember who Wildey is, but he insists on spending the holiday with family. Of all the characters in CANARY, Wildey has the strongest moral compass.
Swierczynski flies his Philadelphia flag high and proud, and you certainly see this in CANARY. Since this is his hometown, you get to see more of the city than you would ever see on any sightseeing tour bus. There’s the Badlands, a known junkie hangout, and Fox Chase, the middle-class neighborhood where Sarie and her family live. And the Lobster Trap, where the Philly mafia takes care of their messier “business”. Swierczynski describes each area of the city is great detail, sometimes including some history to the neighborhood. This extra layer of detail just enhances the story without making the book feel like a history lesson.
It’s been almost 2 years since Swierczynski’s last fiction paperback, POINT & SHOOT, was released. I, for one, have missed his engaging characters and witty dialogue. I hope I don’t have to wait this long for the next book.