MEAN BOY by Lynn Coady (Doubleday), 400 pages. $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
At first glance, Mean Boy's narrator is like most of Lynn Coady's protagonists: a young guy from an East Coast small town discovering who he is in relation to his working-class roots and his aspirations.
But of the young men who populate Coady's literary imagination, Mean Boy's Lawrence Campbell is by far my favourite. Coltish, overexcited and unabashedly earnest, Larry is determined to be a poet. He lives and breathes poetry, considering the rest of his life secondary. His single-mindedness leads to a scholarship at a small New Brunswick university.
Larry chooses this particular school in order to stalk and woo (platonically speaking) his poetry idol, Jim Arsenault. Jim is abrasive, manic, a genius - everything Larry sees as intrinsic to being a successful poet. And he drinks a lot, talks about himself and throws temper tantrum after temper tantrum, entirely recognizable behaviour in male CanLit poets of the 70s.
Larry becomes Jim's dog, so to speak, adapting to his erratic mood swings, hanging on his every word and spearheading a campaign to ensure his tenure.
If you've ever been an English or creative writing major at a Canadian university, Mean Boy will definitely resonate for you. Though Larry's classmates are deep into their bell-bottom era, I found myself laughing at the timelessness of certain conversations that conjured memories of my experience as a Concordia creative writing undergrad in the mid-90s. Mean Boy runs a jumbo satirical highlighter over Can Lit's tireless ability to navel-gaze.
Mean Boy might be to writers what Yo La Tengo is to music nerds: a novel that mostly appeals to other writers. I do hope it will attract readers outside this group, however, because Mean Boy is above all a solid and comical page-turner.