Book Reviews · 07/04/2011

The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn by Sean Dixon


Coach House Books, 2011

The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn by Sean Dixon is a marvelous, contemporary novel that subtly takes hold and improves as it ages, so that by the end, a fully realized tale has played out, encompassing the spectrums of dark and light, gentrification and urban blight, vengeance and forgiveness, upheaval and reconstruction, fire and water (and tears), death, birth, flowers and worms, drain-pipes and open pits, and trees that grow in the sky. Jungian archetypes abound—generally presented in fresh ways. The novel underpromises but then overdelivers… quite a surprising pleasure.

Young urban rebel Kip Flynn, a creative entrepreneur of tar-dipped roses, and her boyfriend Mani plan ways to bring down the powerful father-and-son York duo who are redeveloping and gentrifying Toronto’s downtown and market area.

She has no idea she occupies ground zero in a war of dark against dark, a war for the city’s soul. She has a bit of a blind spot for the dark, in fact, having lived in so many ramshackle places that she has developed an instinct to look towards the light.

A minor event leads Pat York to put Kip and Mani’s theater-lobby rose-selling venture out of business, driving customers to a cheap competitor. To retaliate, a simple robbery of one of the York properties is planned. To help, Kip’s roommate Nancy (a city tour guide and historian turned by Kip and friends against the destructive redevelopment schemes) procures a fake gun for Mani. The robbery is a failure. The house is empty—a construction project in progress—and loaded with dirt. Suddenly, the York duo emerges from the basement and sees Mani’s gun. The elder York wields a weapon of his own, not fake, and shoots Mani dead.

Kip escapes with her life, her boyfriend’s baby in utero, and an obsession with getting clean laundry to Mani’s body, so he can be disposed of with dignity. Pat York goes looking for Kip, Kip goes looking for the Yorks. Nancy sees an opportunity from a balcony to murder Pat by dropping an air-conditioning unit onto him, though she fails. Points of view shift and blend, sometimes even within a single phrase, though somehow, everything and everyone stays straight.

Kip’s enormous drug-addicted musician friend Henry reluctantly hides Kip in his bass case and hauls her thus entombed body to safety. The heavy symbolism of pregnant Kip bursting forth and damaging the instrument case, overtly foretells Kip’s journey going forward.

And so we wind our way eventually to a worm’s-eye view of Kip curled up inside the belly of a bass case, squashed like a bug between pages of a book, thumping uncomfortably up Kensington on little wheels… Given the places she’s been in the last twenty-four hours, she’s beginning to feel a little claustrophobic. She tries knocking down walls in her head to give her memory more space.

Lest the reader become attached to Henry the huge helper, the novel’s chatty omniscient narrator alerts the reader that Henry’s story will continue later, and attention is directed once again to Kip’s plight. In a chaotic scene, she delivers a threat and clean clothes to the Yorks, and she accepts a large bribe for her silence. She lies to Nancy about Mani’s death and goes off to mourn in solitude in an abandoned drain pipe, where she nearly dies. Dead Mani urges Kip to save herself and seek revenge. Originally intending not to use the Yorks’ bribe money, Kip recreates herself with a cleaned-up persona and new plans.

What she doesn’t know, though, is that during her drain-pipe days, many events have passed, including Pat York’s father’s death, and that of Kip’s father, who confesses on his death bed that Kip is not his daughter at all. From afar, Nancy sees Kip’s transformation and vows revenge on Kip for her upscale turn-around. The many characters’ stories begin to coalesce, and the novel’s momentum ramps up significantly.

Interspersed in the pages of The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn are doodles and sketches—monster buildings with teeth and human body parts. Often, the drawings are distracting, though one well-wrought example might make a fine book jacket. Fact is, the streets and buildings are as much “character” as any of the human beings. Their story is certainly as important as Kip’s or Nancy’s or Pat’s.

The day would come when all these buildings would be brought down and take all memories with them. Faded words on sheets of paper in the rain.

The novel is a sort of love story, one elusive partner is the market and its architecture in a reluctantly declining part of old Toronto, and the other “partner” a rag-tag cast of characters who are trying to save or destroy it. A sort of Greek chorus punctuates the story with each wonderful appearance of a group of Vietnamese migrant workers, nocturnal worm-pickers with metal buckets attached to their ankles, and their hands, quite literally, in the earth. They seem to know what’s truly going on, even as Kip, Nancy, Pat and the others play it all out.

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Sean Dixon is a playwright, novelist and actor. His plays have been produced in Canada, the U.S., Australia and the U.K., and three have been collected in AWOL: Three Plays for Theatre SKAM. Sean’s first novel was The Girls Who Saw Everything (The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal in the U.S. and the U.K.), named one of the Best Books of 2007 by Quill & Quire. He is the author of two books for young readers, The Feathered Cloak and The Winter Drey. He occasionally plays banjo with the Toronto glam rock band tomboyfriend.

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Nancy Freund is an American-British novelist and poet with a B.A. in English/Creative Writing and an M.Ed. from UCLA. In addition to writing and teaching, she’s been in editing, publishing, book marketing and publicity. Involved with the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival, London’s Women in Publishing and the Geneva Writers’ Group, she currently lives in Switzerland.