Innocence and Experience
- Lynn Coady (Author)
Mean Boy. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gisèle M. Baxter
Lynn Coady's fourth novel, Mean Boy, is set in a small New Brunswick university town, over the 1975-76 academic year. Its narrator, 19-year-old Larry Campbell, came here to escape a small town on Prince Edward Island, and to pursue the art of poetry with his hero, the rambunctiously singular Jim Arsenault, who teaches writing in the English Department. Despite his ritualistic bouts with the typewriter, Larry knows very little about life, or poetry for that matter, and is detached and bluntly judgemental. Consequently, the novel at first seems populated by clichés: the sexy blue-eyed curly-haired blonde Sherrie, the big dumb football player Chuck Slaughter, the turtlenecked artiste Claude, the enthusiastic working-class bard Todd Smiley; waitresses and secretaries are busty and blowsy, the faculty besides the vigorous backwoods-dwelling Jim are tweedy and dull. Yet Larry dreads becoming a cliché himself: the naïve hick.
Through its clever episodic narrative structure and precisely, unsentimentally observed detail, this novel skillfully avoids calcifying to fit a generic slot (the academic satire, the regional Gothic, the period piece, the portrait of the artist as a young man), even while it flirts with all of these genres. Mean Boy is not a 30-years-hence memory piece, framed as the reminiscences of a mature man whose fate we know. Instead, it has the immediacy of recollection not long after the fact, but after some stepping stone to greater perception has been negotiated. Events are described in the moment; “Memory delayed doesn't make memory better” (374). No huge revelations arrive: we never fully learn why Jim drinks so much, what (or who) Sherrie really wants, whether Claude is gay, what exactly happens between Larry and Janet. Smaller, more crucial lessons are learned: hero worship can provide dangerous weapons to the needy god, mentors can be found in unexpected people, childhood memories reverberate in adult nightmares, betrayal can be felt and revenge motivated in many ways. This is a novel of discoveries recorded as grace notes that redefine each character, bringing them fully to life: Sherrie suddenly turning ugly in unleashing her capacity for anger and passion, Bryant Dekker admitting he changed his given name Obed for something more Byronic, the memory of Larry's father's kindness in letting hippies camp on his land, the inspiring performance of Dermot Schofield's poems in front of a small audience on a stormy night, even Grandma Lydia's expletive. Questions arise, concerning poetry but also concerning relationships, aspirations, sexuality; they are left unresolved, as they should be: this is ultimately a novel of latency. We do not know if Larry will become a poet, but we realize he has the capacity, in his own attention to detail (the gesture of a squirrel, the shape of a chair, the texture of a sweater, the quality of sunlight through a window, the imagery of a nightmare), his love of the almost tactile quality of words, in speech, as formations on paper, and in his growing accumulation of experience and developing realization that other people are not always what they seem.
Lynn Coady ends the novel with a poem, printed as if produced on an old manual typewriter. It is tempting to think Jim wrote this poem when Larry let him sleep off a hangover in his apartment. I like to think this is Larry's poem, using the anecdote about the squirrel invasion he tells early on to figure his perception of Jim, who is also alluring through the glass, destructive once inside.
Mean Boy is confident, funny, and deeply moving. It is also remarkably accurate. Lynn Coady probably started grade school in 1975; I started university the following year (in Nova Scotia). I am not quite sure why she chose this period, though it is a point before the evolution toward contemporary academia experienced its greatest seismic shifts. It is a point before poetry slams, as well as online discussion groups and social networking sites, allowed aspiring writers ways to experience and produce poetry outside academia. Once or twice I wondered if an expression had actually been current then, and even aspiring poets seemed more engaged by the outside world (and more conscious of no longer living in the 1960s) than this group (though there are hints via Claude of the opportunities of greater awareness through travel). However, the Stanfield's undershirts and the parkas, the love of strong tea, the still mostly male (and mostly British and American) faculty, the cubed cheese on toothpicks and plastic wineglasses, the encroachment of feminism, the odd sense of for the first time being in a world of adults unlike your family, outside your family: those things she captures, and some of them endure.
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MLA: Baxter, Gisèle M. Innocence and Experience. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #189 (Summer 2006), The Literature of Atlantic Canada. (pg. 164 - 165)
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