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Mean Boy (2006)
by Lynn Coady
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A wonderfully painful satire on creative writing schools and the cult of the Canadian poet. Having gone to a writing school for my undergraduate degree, I re-experienced the awkwardness that is trying to find one's place--while trying very hard not to look like one is trying--in what seems like a mysterious and exclusive world.
At almost every turn I thought the author's instincts were bang on; one thing I like a great deal about Lynn Coady's writing is that she doesn't choose easy plot resolution. Her books are engaging, and yet unpredictable. I did think that there was a sort of false resolution at which she could have ended the book. The actual ending felt anticlimactic, and like an attempt to finish on a note of gravity, rather than humour. But the humour in the novel is so weighted by the empathy and discomfort I felt for Larry Campbell, that I would have preferred the 'false' ending to the real one.
Earnest, small-town Lawrence Campbell is fascinated by his poetry professor, the charismatic and uncompromising Jim Arsenault. Larry is determined to escape a life of thrifty drudgery and intellectual poverty working for his parents' motel and mini-golf business on Prince Edward Island. Jim appears to the young poet as a beacon of authenticity - mercurial, endlessly creative, fearless in his confrontations with the forces of conformity. And he drinks a lot. Jim's magnetic personality soon draws Larry's entire poetry composition class into his orbit. Among the other literary acolytes are Sherrie Mitten, with her ringletted blonde hair and guileless blue eyes, the turtlenecked, urbane Claude who writes villanelles, and the champion of rhyming couplets about the heroic struggles of the Maritime proletariat, Todd. Casting a huge shadow over the group is the varsity football player and recreational drug user Chuck Slaughter - titanically strong, capriciously violent, hilariously indifferent to the charms of the poetic life - who has nearly given up terrifying Larry in order to pursue an awkward romantic interest in Sherrie. Drawn by ambition and fascination, the group assembles itself fawningly around Jim, tagging along to bars, showing up at readings, thrilled to be invited to Jim's home, a shambling farmhouse in the woods where he lives with Moira, his shrewish backwoods muse. Lost in adulation, Larry is so delighted to be singled out for Jim's attention that he does not pause to wonder what Jim expects from his increasingly close relationship with the young poet. Closely observed and deeply funny, Mean Boy tells the story of Larry's year-long battle against the indiscriminate use of quotation marks in advertising and his disillusionment as his narcissistic, hard-drinking idol spins out of control and threatens to take the young man's cherished notions about art and poetry down with him. Mean Boy is Lynn Coady's most polished and ambitious work to date.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.54Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
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This is the funniest Canadian novel I've read in some time. Coady's evocation of the artist as a young man is pitch perfect: his need for approval, his naïveté, his grandiose dreaming. She fleshes out the novel with a cast of memorable characters, whose interactions are wonderfully comic.
Towards the end, the novel falters. The humour begins to disappear, which could well be deliberate, but more importantly, there is a sense that Coady is finding ways to spin out the story, to build false suspense by holding back what the narrator knows.
Nevertheless, well worth reading.