choke hold implies a sense of control -- while something else suffers. Too perfect for our protagonist, Jeremy Little, whose surname alone hints at a Napoleon complex and a lifetime of one-upmanship. After being beaten and publicly humiliated by Nick Lozinski, a high-school jock, Jeremy becomes obsessed with training himself in the martial arts. following his father's infidelity and his mother's death from cancer, he redoubles his efforts to become immune -- to eliminate the human variables of pain, decay and failed relationships.
A scholarship in Boston offers a way out of his hometown of Seymour, Alberta, and its promise of mediocrity.
There, he meets Ellie, who helps finance the Waterfront Warrior School of Self Defence. But when an out-of-control student goes too far, the publicity results in the school's financial ruin.
Jeremy returns to his hometown after a seven-year absence to find that life has changed dramatically and his old high-school nemesis is not what he was.
Rooted in Douglas Coupland's domain of 30-something pop nostalgia -- vinyl chairs, Pilsner beer, metal bands from the 80s -- Choke Hold hints at the autobiographical. Babiak himself is a resident of rural Alberta and thanks martial arts instructors in his forward.
But for all its sincerity, the book still reads like an elaborate play on the Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads from the backs of old comic books, with the 90-pound weakling/sand-in-the-eyes scenario transplanted to tailgate parties and local watering holes.
What could have been a subtle meditation on the art of combat becomes a simple story of emotional dysfunction, with a hero as unassuming and ineffectual as the flatlands that surround him. CHOKE HOLD by Todd Babiak (Turnstone), 237 pages, $18.95 paper. Rating: NNMARQUS BOBESICH Martial law