Magazines 2023 Mar - Apr The Undertaking of Billy Buffone

The Undertaking of Billy Buffone

27 February 2023 By Marianne Jones

An extended review of a 2021 novel by David Guiliano

Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.

Latitude 46 Publishing, 2021. 289 pages, $22 (e-book $10)

“There is no more painful judgement of our darkness than the judgement cast by the light of love.” So states the ghostly narrator in this gritty, dark, funny and ultimately redemptive novel by David Guiliano.

Set in Twenty-Six Mile House, a fictional northern Ontario town, the story centres around a twenty-year-old secret of abuse that led to murder and suicide. Even the shocking deaths didn’t break the conspiracy of silence by the citizens about the ongoing abuse of vulnerable boys by one of the town’s prominent leaders.

Narrating the story is Billy Buffone’s deceased best friend Matthew Collins, decades after his suicide. Billy is the town’s eccentric undertaker. Shattered by guilt over the suicide of his best friend, he lives as a recluse, unable to form connections with the living. When not taking care of the dead and the bereaved, he lives in his fantasies to avoid thinking about his trauma and culpability.

That begins to change with the arrival in Twenty-Six Mile House of the new minister, Catherine. Lonely and insecure, Catherine is drawn to Billy during their funeral responsibilities, sensing in him a special depth and sensitivity, and a loneliness that matches her own.

When a highway accident claims the life of Gilbert Bearchild, a university student from a nearby reserve, Billy is tasked by Bearchild’s aunt and grandmother with finding Gilbert’s troubled brother Clarence and bringing him home.

Fulfilling that mission forces Billy into some hard self-confrontation. Like Billy, Clarence is racked with guilt and self-recrimination. They lecture each other self-righteously about their refusal to choose life, but they are unprepared to take their own advice.

The novel was initially inspired when author and United Church minister Guiliano moved to Marathon, Ont., just as the community was dealing with its shock over the conviction of a local leader for the assault of boys and young men. Guiliano felt drawn to writing about the “moral and collateral damage” by such atrocities, his concern for victims of abuse, and anger over the often expressed desire to “move on and forget it”. It is a pattern we see repeated too often in institutions and communities. His hope is that by writing this book, he can invite people to a more open dialogue about abuse, protecting the young, and self-forgiveness.

The story is by turns graphic, harsh and hilarious, written with great tenderness and love. The author describes the unique environment of northern Ontario with the accuracy of one who has spent half his life there. He also writes respectfully of the Anishnaabe neighbours who live in the region.

Catherine’s experiences with people on Pickerel River, the nearby reserve, mirror to a large extent Guiliano’s during his years in Marathon. Sharing in communal observances of mourning the lost binds two religious traditions together in mutual respect and love. There is nothing like suffering to erase our differences.

Readers should be cautioned that the novel, particularly the opening, is graphic at times. There is no averting of eyes from the ugliness of abuse. But the dark subject matter is relieved by shafts of light illuminating the healing beauty of love and forgiveness. Each character faces the choice of stepping through a doorway toward life. Communities and organizations face similar choices: the courage to embrace hard truth and find healing, or to remain locked in the sickness of secrets and denial.

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