Anyone can be “Garbage Boy” – at least that’s what Winnipeg author Michael McMullen wants readers of his sophomore novel, Garbage Boy: The High Bar of Low Expectations, to consider.
This follow-up to Scarred, McMullen’s 2019 novel, is somewhat personal to him.
“Am I the ‘garbage boy?’” he says. “Yes, it is me, but it really isn’t.”
Garbage Boy follows the story of a teen dealt a bad hand: an abusive homelife, poverty, bullying and a face full of scars. He finds community and strength through an unlikely group of sanitation workers – but are they helping him “ascend” or taking him down the primrose path?
On Jan. 28, Garbage Boy was officially released at a launch event at One Great City Brewing Co. in partnership RaY (Resource Assistance for Youth). RaY helps youth under 30 – much like the book’s young protagonist, William, a.k.a Garbage Boy.
$5 from each book sold until Feb. 29 and $1 from every Garbage Boy Golden Ale (a One Great City beer created specifically for the book) will go to RaY.
“The beer is pivotal to both the prequel Scarred and Garbage Boy,” McMullen, who uses beer to bond his characters at critical moments, says.
McMullen recalls the challenges of growing up in a single-parent home on the “lower rungs of the social ladder” – something he felt most acutely during his summer job as a garbage picker.
“Even if nothing was said,” McMullen says of cleaning up after his peers in the park, “that denigration of your status, your position in life was real. As a 15-year-old, you’re particularly vulnerable to that.”
The impact of this memory stayed with McMullen and informed the characters in his book.
“That ‘real-life’ experience and feeling, the emotions, the senses of life I put into the characters,” he says of the fictional story.
Michelle Kowalchuk, director of mental health and addictions at RaY, sees parallels between William and the young people who come to RaY.
“Many of our youth have a lot of trauma in their lives, a lot of barriers that they face, a lot of difficulties,” Kowalchuk says.
She adds that RaY’s programming and resources help them “move past those barriers and onto a better path.”
She says if William had access to services like the ones RaY offers, “maybe his path would have looked a little different.”
McMullen learned about RaY through his late friend Syd Vosters, whose daughter Breda works as their director of grants and information.
“Syd and I would talk about the taxation system and income inequality,” he says. “She gave me a perspective of caring and how things are seen from different perspectives.”
The connection to RaY aligned with “Garbage Boy” and McMullen’s personal story. He hopes that William’s journey and what drives him will also resonate with readers of all walks of life.
“If there’s something that an audience can see in a character that motivates them,” he says, “it connects you with your audience.”
Kowalchuk says RaY is always looking for opportunities to build partnerships
with individuals like McMullen, as well as other outreach-minded organizations. The organization plans to use the funds from the book and beer proceeds to provide clothing, hygiene items, mental-health support, housing, food, groceries and other resources for youth in need.
Garbage Boy: The High Bar of Low Expectations is available for purchase at McNally Robinson. Find Garbage Boy Golden Ale at One Great City Brewing Co.
Published in Volume 78, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 8, 2024)