SET IN THE 1970s, Lynn Coadyâe(TM)s latest novel, Mean Boy, is the story of young Larry Campbell, a PEI native searching for poetic inspiration at Westcock University in New Brunswick, more specifically in the life and work of poet/professor Jim Arsenault.
It is likely that readers will find something very familiar about the young Campbell. Possibly that something will have to do with Larry (who prefers Lawrence) being the pinnacle of the yearning and learning poet/student, the boy with the notebook in his pocket for jotting down ideas, the boy with the serious soul, the fun-destroying compulsions, trying to survive the life of abandon and alcohol that poetry may seem to require.
If you were in Creative Writing/English Literature/Cultural Studies in university, you knew this boy/were this boy/dated this boy. Coady paints him from the inside out with fantastic and loving detail, from his ugly sweaters right down to his philosophy on tea and the perfect workspace.
Of course, no campus poet is complete without his poetry-class compatriots. So thereâe(TM)s Sherrie Mittens, the girl poet with what Campbell surmises is an inappropriate name; Claude, with his turtlenecks and disdain; and a couple other boys just like Larry, whom (not surprisingly) Larry doesnâe(TM)t like very much.
And then thereâe(TM)s Jim, the alcoholic, self-destructing professor and wild boy, who issues fairly useless advice, but who Larry idolizes and in whom Larry has placed all his faith. Faith that being and working with Jim will make him an important poet, and faith that Jim is worth worshipping in the first place.
If youâe(TM)re a fan of Coadyâe(TM)s previous works, including the prize-winning novels Strange Heaven (1998) and Saints of Big Harbour (2002), there will be something familiar about Larryâe(TM)s (and Coadyâe(TM)s) insight into the imperfect world around him, and his own befuddled attempts to wade through it. Coady has a distinct knack, ably displayed here, for writing about human chaos: be it the chaos of a university dorm, a dysfunctional family Christmas, or a night (after night, after night) of chemical experimentation.
If youâe(TM)re missing your days of requisite artistic hedonism, youâe(TM)ll enjoy following Larry on his adventures into the world of alcohol and drugs, without the horrors of the mornings after.
Aside from Larryâe(TM)s social/chemical struggles, the meat of Mean Boy is the Pinocchio-like struggle to be a real writer. Mean Boy is the perfect illustration of one of the major pitfalls of being an artist: that it is often difficult, at all levels, to really know what good art/poetry/writing is, especially when itâe(TM)s coming from your own brain. As the bookâe(TM)s anti-Arsenault, visiting poet Dermot Schofield, tellingly imparts to Lawrence, âeoeItâe(TM)s impossible. It will always be impossible.âe
Perhaps the only and best advice is that knowing what good art is is even more impossible when you spend all your time trying to live up to an artistic ideal that youâe(TM)re not. Excuse the Oprah-ness of my wording here, but: youâe(TM)ve got to be true to yourself.
There is something marvelously true about Coadyâe(TM)s style, Larry/Lawrence, and his emotionally epic journey from innocence to experience in Mean Boy. It was refreshing to see Coady do more than justice to Larryâe(TM)s story without having to draw on any of the typical fail-safes: no person has to die, fall in love, or have an affair in this novel; no one wins a big race; the whole novel does not end with the protagonist writing a novel about his experiences in the previous year. Which is not to say that Coady doesnâe(TM)t give you some heavy moments, only that they do not take the expected form.
As you may have gathered, this book is also incredibly hilarious, laugh-out-loud funny. I recommend it as the perfect summer read for students taking a break from the acad-world, and non-students who can appreciate a really well crafted piece of Canadian writing. And anyone who wants to have a laugh at the glamorous writing life.âe"Mariko Tamaki
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