It’s 1979 and Tom Buzby is thirteen years old and living in the small working- class city of Chatham, Ontario. So far, so normal. Except that Tom’s dad is the local tattoo artist, his mother is a born-again former stripper who’s run off with the minister from the church where the pet store used to be, and his sister can’t wait to leave town for good. And everyone along his daily newspaper route looks at him a little differently, this boy who’s come back from the dead, who just might be the only one who understands the miraculous, heart-breaking mystery that is their lives.
Set in the year that real newspaper headlines told of North America’s hard turn to the right, 1979 offers a smalltown take on the buried lives of those who almost never make the news, and one boy’s attempt to make sense of it all.
Robertson (I Was There the Night He Died) centers this novel on Tom Buzby, an affable, Tang-drinking 13-year-old boy who delivers newspapers to the residents of the small town of Chatham, Ont. The low-key coming-of-age story captures Tom's days following his parents' divorce and traces his money problems, familial relationships, thoughts on local and world politics, and existential questions of assorted depths. Introducing readers to people whom Tom encounters on his paper route, the novel gives readers views into the sad, regret-filled, misbegotten, and occasionally contented days of various residents of Chatham in more than 30 short prose passages with newspaper-style headlines, such as "Average Guy Lives Average Life." In first- and third-person narration, several figures including an immigrant from China, an Auschwitz survivor, and a former athlete stricken with disease reflect on life. Tom's teenage experiences have their moments but are generally hampered by their ordinariness, and Robertson's writing isn't sufficiently lyrical to gild those mundane events. Robertson's novel nods heavily to Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, but it doesn't carry the power of that work.