The epigraph to Rough, from The Hobbit—“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”—could not be more fitting. Rough is not only about living “rough,” homeless on the streets, but also about ways of looking, seeing and, especially, about going through the world unseen—and what you find when you do. The novel’s main character, Shermeto, formerly a photographer, taught his daughter Kendra about looking (she now makes her living as a photographer)—though his deceased wife, funnily enough, once told him he was so busy looking through his camera he didn’t see what was in front of him.
Crap happens, and Shermeto now lives along the banks of the Bow River in Calgary. Although he is “kind of a dick” to Kendra, I grew rather fond of him. He has suffered heartache so deep he can no longer live among “the homed.” He is comfortable among the homeless because of the tacit agreement that you don’t have to talk about what torments you.
His family are the people of the streets and the riverbank, who drift in and out of his life—faster sometimes than changes in the weather. This world has a timelessness to it; one day is like the next, spent looking for food, a dry place to sleep, and, mostly, ways to numb pain. When his acquaintance Jagger meets up with him one day and Shermeto tells him he’s headed “nowhere special,” Jagger’s response is “I’m headed there too.” They are in a survival mode so intense that the dangerously flooding Bow (the story takes place in a six-day period during Calgary’s 2013 flood) is well off their radar. As the river gushes over retaining walls and into streets and houses, we learn that most of the homeless people Shermeto has befriended have mysteriously died (and, eventually, why), and he latches on to a homeless mother and son, hoping to make things right with them in ways that he could not with his own family.
The story is told through the eyes of Shermeto, Kendra and the Bow, which is given its own short, often poetic chapters and speaks up briefly in others. The river (and Shermeto) help us see what we might not otherwise notice; the river is the great seer of all things, ultimately finding something it was not after and becoming not only seer but judge that metes out justice.
This is a first novel and is more convincing in some parts than others. The heart of the story, for me, was in watching a daughter who doesn’t understand why her father can’t simply be happy among “the homed,” and a man who has found some measure of peace living “rough,” hunkering in the dark by a noisy overpass, where he becomes a “little blip in this godforsaken universe.”
—Astrid Blodgett is an Edmonton short story writer and editor.