THE DESPERATES by Greg Kearney (Cormorant), 317 pages, $21.95 paper. Rating: NNN
Greg Kearney's debut novel - he's a skilled short story writer, winner of a ReLit Award for his Pretty collection - definitely has the right title.
The characters in The Desperates, set in 1998, are all in life situations that are bordering on or actually hopeless.
Joel, new to T.O. and just 19, already considers himself a failure. He's dropped out of university - a huge disappointment to Teresa, his mother - and wants to be a spoken word artist even though he tends to seize up onstage. Just coming out, he gloms onto older guys, seeking intimate relationships with all the wrong people.
He hooks up briefly with Edmund, who's retired from his job - from life in general, actually, and is still recovering from his lover's death from AIDS. After rejecting Joel, Edmund gets involved with young street hustler Binny, who leads him on a drug-fuelled sexual adventure.
Joel, meanwhile, has been summoned home to Kenora, where Teresa is dying of cancer and his emotionally guarded father, Hugh, is barely managing.
Kearney knows how to create vivid characters. Joel's neediness is palpable, making him truly insufferable. Edmund's so lost, he can't connect with anybody. And Teresa, the volatile mum who can turn on a dime from fiercely protective to downright cruel when it comes to Joel, confronts her illness with startling ferocity.
But Kearney doesn't totally succeed when it comes to tone. He wants to make us laugh at the appalling aspects of the narrative, but (this might just be a matter of taste or sensibility) I didn't find much of it funny. Binny's sexual predilections - he's a bottom who could end up dead - are actually distressing, and terminal cancer is, well, a downer.
In the end, the book has more heart than humour, regardless of Kearney's intentions.