The author has stated in that the scenes of violence in the book are based on a lot of research, and one can imagine that he also received some knowledge of breaking and cutting bone and tissue during his time working at a meat plant. This shows.
The book takes place in the fictional city of Larkhill, Ontario. But so many have commented that this city is based on Sullivan’s home town of Oshawa, Ontario, that he may as well have named the place Oshawa in the book. Larkhill is a wrecked town. Economically bereft, decayed not decaying. Sullivan does a very good job evoking a mood of perpetual doom and gloom. It is as though when the sky in Larkhill is not grey,it is raining a muddy rain. This is the mood. The characters feel doomed, even those who survive the novel’s events.
A large cast is introduced. They are given enough character that they are not complete blanks when it is their turn to die, but none are very deeply developed. One of the main characters, Moses, is a skin-head. Another, Astor Crane, is a gangster. Both these groups are willing to deal out some pain and when put in opposition they do so with zeal. The gangster is meant as the menacing baddie. But to be the big fish in a small muddy pond like Larkhill is just sad, not threatening.
There isn’t much story, and what is there does not seem particularly realistic. Jamie and Moses accidentally run over Crane’s pet lion, and hide the body. He finds them. Violence ensues. The ending falls flat. Sullivan tried too hard for some resonant pathos in the final scenes and that messes up his conclusion.
This novel isn’t an action story, despite the violence. What we see is brutal death but it isn’t action writing. Neither is this a thriller. There is too much universal gloom for that. It isn’t realist. It isn’t nihilist. Nihilism is the belief that life is meaningless, that nothing in the world has real existence. That isn’t quite what is portrayed here.
I think most accurately Waste is existentialist. All three male leads, Moses, Jamie, and Astor, must create their ‘self’, then live in accordance with this self. Their choices lead to existential angst, in which they experience negative feeling arising from their choices, and every choice creates dread. The dread in fact is a constant theme. The novel could be seen as a metaphor for dread and decay.
The author’s strengths are creation of mood and an ability to depict violence. I would like to see him use these skills in a gritty, more realistic novel, or a suspense-thriller.