Breakers by Doug Johnstone

  Breakers by Doug Johnstone

Breakers is a brief vignette into the world of seventeen year old Tyler Wallace—a bit of writing that brilliantly captures an emotional turning point in Tyler’s young life. Doug Johnstone takes us readers on a “poverty safari” -to quote Tyler— through Edinburgh’s underclass using sparse clean language to create a tense, deeply moving book that is filled with a sense of gritty realism.

We find Tyler living in a housing project with his junkie mother and his younger sister, Bean. His older half siblings live next door and have seemingly coerced Tyler into a life of crime. They are “breakers” and utilize the slim Tyler to easily slip through fan lights which are often left unlocked to rob upperclass homes. His half siblings fence the stolen merchandise for cash and in return for his services Tyler gets a cut.

The reality is more complicated than that of simple coercion— this is a hard compromise. Tyler submits to the needs of his half siblings and participates in this life of crime as way to not only protect his sister— but as the most expedient means to keep a roof over their heads, food in their mouths and most importantly to Tyler—his family together.

The harsh reality is that he has become the “adult” in Bean’s life, his own life, and he often plays the role of adult for his own mother. Tyler may be a criminal with a sketchy track record at school but he does not drink or do drugs.

Tyler is doing the best he can to create a “normal” childhood for Bean, but because of their toxic home life, Tyler’s choices while perhaps necessary for survival are putting him on an increasingly slippery downhill slope and into circumstances where his decisions have increasingly darker consequences. “Lesser of two evils.” is still an evil choice.

During a solo break-in he accidentally meets Flick, a posh girl, who boards at a private school while her military parents are stationed in Afghanistan. She lives in a rich girl’s version of a toxic family. They quickly bond.

One night Tyler’s half brother makes the decision to break into the “wrong” house…

Mr. Johnstone crafts a bevy of believable characters and under his sure hands the Edinburgh underclass springs to life—the story that ensues is action packed, menacing and violent. It is also filled with brief glimpses of compassion, forgiveness, and the power of the simplest of humane gestures—that kindness pays forward even in this noir version of Edinburgh.

I feel that to say more about the story that ensues would come at the risk of spoiling an excellent plot and that is not fair to the author or to other readers but I do have a few other thoughts.

This past fall I binge watched the epic crime series The Wire, in which the drug infested projects of East Baltimore, MD play a main character.  This is a cop show and the action is mostly driven between interactions between cops, government officials, criminals, and drug kingpins.

For me, the most compelling part of The Wire were the scenes that followed the lives of children who inhabited these Baltimore projects children caught up in a toxic society —not from choice— but from circumstance, a world where basic day to day survival and crime often made for the most expedient of bedfellows.

Little vignettes that showed the cost of poverty on these children living in a broken society, often in graphic horrifying detail. Kids using drug money to keep their families together, food on the table, and a roof over their heads—father in the wind and junkie mother high on the couch.

Tales of redemption and escape were few and far between and were predominantly a matter of right place, right time, right person and a will to fight against the current. This also holds true for Tyler Wallace.

By the end of Breakers Tyler’s life will have pivoted in many ways but at what cost? 

Throughout the novel, Tyler must make a series of necessary but increasingly dark decisions—detoxifying perhaps -but to an expedient mind choices that will make day to day survival even trickier especially as his needs remain the same— his family together, food on the table and a roof over their heads.

The question remains will this darker version of Tyler take this opportunity to break away from his life as a criminal or will he continue to let the currents of necessity lead him along expedient paths.

Inevitably bowing to harsh circumstances that are almost always impossible to escape. This somber grayness is what gave this story its realistic grit and made for reading time well spent.

I look forward to reading more of Doug Johnstone’s novels and would not be averse to learning more of the fate of Tyler Wallace. I am also looking into downloading his playlist.


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Hi! I'm Debbie. Here at Categorically Well-Read I give an extra layer to the reading life. Learn more about me, check out my current category of books, submit your own suggestion, or check out my latest post.