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Fiction Contemporary Women

Going Down Swinging

by (author) Billie Livingston

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Nov 2000
Contemporary Women, Family Life, Black Humor
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2000
    List Price

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A remarkable debut novel and bittersweet tale of the unflinching love and devotion between a mother and daughter.Razor sharp and darkly funny Going Down Swinging chronicles two years in the life of the Hoffmans. Eilleen Hoffman has just told Danny, her con-artist lover and father of her youngest daughter Grace, to get out — for good. Once a teacher, Eilleen lived a middle-class life, but her taste in men coupled with a predilection for pills and booze has brought her down. Desperate to prevent her family from sinking deeper into poverty, Eilleen reluctantly goes on welfare. Eventually she turns to the only friends she has left, hustlers and hookers, to learn how a woman makes fast money, no investment necessary.With Eilleen on welfare and her older daughter Charlotte a teenaged runaway, child welfare authorities descend on the Hoffmans. As Eilleen trails through several attempts at drying out, the well-intentioned Children's Protection Society finally intervenes to apprehend Grace. With the threat of prolonged separation now a stark reality, Eilleen and Grace must rally to confront their demons with grit, determination and humour. Unblinkingly observed and brilliantly written, Going Down Swinging is about the powerful bond between mother and child. And with her skilful narrative interplay, Billie Livingston illustrates poignantly how the truth of our stories lies not so much in the black and white, as it does in the grey.

About the author

Billie Livingston has published short fiction and poetry in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. She is the author of Going Down Swinging (Random House, 2000) and winner of This Magazine's 2000 Short Story Contest. Born in Toronto, Billie now lives in Vancouver where she writes, works in the film industry, and collaborates on various projects as a member of The Seven Sisters Writing Group(

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Excerpt: Going Down Swinging (by (author) Billie Livingston)




No one ever believes they'll sink So Low. So Low is someone else's life, someone else's man, someone else's job. Everyone imagines little rubber bands hooked at the shoulder, springing back to safety just before the life-sucking bedrock.

Now Danny's gone, your man, the guy you called husband. And you're wandering in the haze between dazed and terrified. Flat broke. Flat out. Just flat; a reasonable hand-drawn facsimile of your former self. Somewhere along the line, you got weak and sickly, sucked dry. And he got necessary.

He's always had a kind of crafty power-everyone wanted him and no one could push him. Not until they took him away, at least. Why did you start up with him again? If he hadn't've been busted two years ago, you would've dumped him. So then, what'd you go and do in the meantime, you idiot-went out with one too many assholes until even Danny sounded good.

And Charlie's gone and fucked off too-mind you, for all intents and purposes, she's been gone two years now. Couldn't wait to get out of the house-all that hash and acid floating around the streets, all those micro-minis and fishnet stockings. Fourteen years old when Danny ended up in jail, and without him to make her, she wouldn't do a goddamn thing you said. She got pissed off, sometimes smug, always bitching, sitting around lazy or walking off and coming home late. It wasn't supposed to be that way. She's been cruel ever since. She won't look after you and you can't look after her and she won't let you. She's sick of you and your wine and pills, and screaming retaliation every time she mouths back. Thank god for Grace. She loves you. She clambers all over you and says so.

Now it's just the two of you again, you'll celebrate her seventh this month, alone. And you'll have to work, find work for bills, and landlords and food and rent and Grace and the hydro and the phone. You've been sober all of one week now-too sick to get a job again, to go back to teaching-that was someone else, that woman. Sick when you do drink, sick when you don't. Nauseous and sensitive-skin hurts, and your hair, you can feel each hair move when the air shifts. And the mess, everything's dirty-you can't get up the strength or the will to clean. You'll have to get welfare again. At least for now.

You pace all morning, trying to get up the nerve, the strength to go down to the Welfare office. Pick out the right clothes, now, or they won't believe you. They'd have to be morons. He never kept you like a queen-you refused all hot merchandise in the form of furs and jewels-stupid-stupid-stupid.

By noon, a social worker is looking over your application. He's sweet somehow, so careful with you. His little round bald head, his soft voice. Seems foreign now, another language; gentle, articulate. He puts gs on the ends of his verbs. None of Danny's crowd could ever string together five words of proper English. It's always boozin', screwin', fuckin'-or more likely f(ee-iz)uckin'-they've got to throw that ee-iz smack in the middle of anything illegal or obscene, just in case the walls have ears. But you can't imagine this man ever uses those words.

He gives you the emergency assistance cheque. You'll soon receive a cheque every month: $269.67. For you and one dependant. You start to cry. The social worker doesn't understand. Or maybe he does. He just doesn't know what to do but yank tissue after tissue. Each one gives a sympathetic little gasp as it pulls free, until both you and the Kleenex box are hoarse from hyperventilation.

Guilt is coursing through your arms, up your neck and pounding at the back of your eyeballs until you want to scream, rip it out of your wrists like ropy veins. It's pointless, guilt is useless. It just wasn't meant to be, that's all. You and Danny shouldn't have bothered again and Charlie should've just kept doing whatever she was doing: screwing with her foster mother's head or robbing every kid in the group home blind. Christ, stop thinking such shit-it's not her fault, it's not your fault, it just is. You just couldn't get along-used to start up as soon as you came in the door, the screaming. Fights were getting worse and worse and you were scared it was going to get as bad as it got before she took off the first time. Scared of getting your hair pulled and your mouth slapped and scared of doing it all back.

The night before Charlie left for good, you didn't come home. But it was about time that kid took some responsibility. Maybe it was time she found out what it was like looking after a seven-year-old in this insane asylum with a man who wouldn't come home for three days running half the time. It was your turn to bugger off and take a break. It's not like you were drinking much. And you were trying to go to AA now and then.

Editorial Reviews

"Going Down Swinging is one smart bomb of a tale, detonating and reconstructing one family's hell-on-wheels attempt to choose love over self-destruction. Livingston yokes her stinging, stylish wit to a luminous empathy for human frailty in this shout-out story of mothers and daughters." — Elise Levine, author of Driving Men Mad

"Livingston pulls off the difficult literary task of serving up poignancy without sentimentality in Eilleen and Grace, two characters so vivid they keep splashing in the brain long after the last page is turned." — Anne Fleming, author of the Governor General's Award nominee Pool-Hopping and Other Stories

"Going Down Swinging is a moving first book, and Livingston a compelling new voice — one that should be welcomed and watched." — The Globe and Mail

"[This] first-time novelist reveals an unflinching eye and a formidable grasp of the mysteries of the human heart." — The Vancouver Sun
"Livingston succeeds gorgeously in capturing the messiness and unresolvable ambiguities of familial love. Her lovingly drawn, half-crazy characters always transcend a caseworker's clichés." — National Post

"…intelligent and touching—Livingston resists easy sentimentality at every turn." — The Toronto Star
"Livingston's characters are scrappers. They're canny and sharp and share a dark streak of humour that comes from the love of family and the communal understanding of knowing who is the enemy." — The New Brunswick Reader

"Eilleen and Grace — from whose points of view the story is alternately told — are small fictional masterpieces." — Vancouver Courier

"An absorbing tale of growing up disadvantaged with an alcoholic mother and an absent father, the novel is no coming-of-age weeper.” — The Toronto Star
“Livingston’s book is a humane, political look at the world of hard knocks…we discover there are no happy endings, just the possibility of fresh beginnings.” — New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, March 11, 00

“Billie Livingston vividly captures the heady romance of mother-daughter love, so strengthening in its unconditional acceptance and support, and so wretchedly debilitating in its blindness.” — The Hamilton Spectator, March 18/00

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