Excerpt from Smoke by Dan Vyleta, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Dan Vyleta

Smoke by Dan Vyleta X
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 448 pages
    Jun 2017, 448 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Print Excerpt


They make him wait for his punishment.

It's laundry day the next morning and, having no choice, Thomas throws the sodden, smelly shirt into the basket, along with the week's underwear and bedclothes. The Soot stain has faded but not disappeared.

It is no consolation to Thomas that many a schoolboy adds his own stained clothes to the growing pile. Each transgression leaves behind its own type of Soot, and those versed in such matters can determine the severity of your crime just by studying the stain's density and grit. This is why no classes in Smoke and Ethics are scheduled for laundry day: the master, Dr. Renfrew, spends his morning locked in his office, rooting through boys' underclothes. The list of those found guilty of "Unclean Thoughts and Actions" is displayed in a glass cabinet before lunch, so that each schoolboy may learn what punishment has been levied on him. Two days of dining-hall service; three pages that have to be copied from the Second Book of Smoke; a public apology at school assembly. These, for minor transgressions. More serious offences require individual investigation. The boy in question will be called to the master's study, to answer for his sins. There is a chair there, upholstered in leather, that is equipped with leather straps. The boys call it the dentist's chair. No teeth are pulled, but the truth, Dr. Renfrew has been known to say, has to be dug up by the roots. For the most serious violations of Good Order even this procedure is seen to be insufficient. They require the calling of something referred to as a "tribunal." So Thomas has heard. There has been no such case in the weeks since he's been at school.

In class, Thomas sits distracted and is reprimanded when he cannot recite the four principles of Aristotle's theory of causation. Another boy recites them with glib relish. He is not asked what the four principles mean, how they are used, or what good they may do; nor who this Aristotle was whose marble bust stands in the school hallway, near the portrait of Lord Shrewsbury, the school's esteemed founder. And in general Thomas has found that the school is more interested in the outward form of things rather than their meaning; that learning is a matter of reciting names or dates or numbers: smartly, loudly, and with great conviction. He has proven, thus far, a very bad student.

At lunch, he hardly eats. He is sitting in the school refectory, which has the shape and general dimensions of a chapel and is dreadfully cold. December winds have pushed the snow into the windows. On the outside they are shrouded in dull white that saps the warmth from every ray of sun. On the inside, they bleed cold water from the edges of their metal frames. On the floor, the puddles refreeze and eat away at the unvarnished wood.

Lunch is a cut of hard gammon half hidden under a ladleful of lukewarm peas. Each bite tastes like mud to Thomas, and twice he bites down on the fork by accident, digging the prongs into his tongue. Halfway through the meal Charlie spots him and joins him at the table. One of the teachers held him up after class. Charlie waits until the skinny little boy on service duty has condemned him to his own piece of leathery gammon with its attendant pile of yellowing peas.

"Anything?" he asks.

Thomas shakes his head. "Nothing. Look at them, though. They are all waiting for it. The pupils, and the teachers, too. All of them, impatient. Yearning for the bloody shoe to drop."

He speaks resentfully and even as the last word leaves his lips, a wisp of Smoke curls from his nostril, too light and thin to leave behind Soot. Charlie disperses it with a quick wave. He is not worried. Hardly anyone gets through the day without a minor transgression, and there have been days when a teacher could be seen flapping at a thread of Smoke pouring from his tongue. The students tend to like these teachers better. In their imperfection they are closer to their own states of grace.

Excerpted from Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Copyright © 2016 by Dan Vyleta. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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