Sunday, March 05, 2006

Mean Boy, fiction that may be of interest, The Toronto Star, Mar 5 06

Beware the bad boy poet
FICTION
A campus kid gets too close to his professor idol
Mar. 5, 2006. 01:00 AM
by EVA TIHANYI
http://www.thestar.com

Mean Boy

by Lynn Coady

Doubleday

Canada,

385 pages,

$29.95

Lynn Coady's fourth book of fiction and third novel, Mean Boy, continues her exploration of Maritime life, but this time the story unfolds on a New Brunswick university campus rather than in a small rural community.

It is 1975, and Larry Campbell, an aspiring young poet from Prince Edward Island, is right where he wants to be: in the creative writing class taught by his literary idol Jim Arsenault, a celebrated bad-boy poet. Jim has not only the power to dispense grades but also to shower his acolytes with praise and attention, which the fawning Larry craves in increasingly large doses.

The entire class competes for Jim's approval, sometimes to comic effect. Anyone who's ever taken a creative writing course will recognize the veracity of Coady's scenes involving the in-class analysis of work, the sheer ridiculousness of some of the remarks, the tension of the student whose work is being discussed, the attack-and-defend atmosphere.

But you don't have to be a creative writer in order to appreciate Coady's skill as a humorist: "Movements. It reminds me of the way Gramma Campbell used to discuss her bowels after every meal. I don't want there to be movements when it comes to poetry."

The book is entertaining but has a serious core. Coady's writing is tight and fast-paced, and she depicts the dynamics among her characters, especially Larry's eagerness to be Jim's favourite and Jim's smooth exploitation of this adulation, with a sure hand.

Other class members are not short-changed. Coady takes what at first glance are clear stereotypes and turns them into real people. There is Sherrie Mitten, for instance, a ringletted blonde who, with "her extreme cuteness," reminds Larry of "a rabid, blue-eyed hamster." There's an aptly named football player, Charles Slaughter, who enjoys taking drugs, making scenes and hanging around with poets, especially Sherrie.

Jim himself is a vivid creation. Although, according to Coady, he is based on the poet John Thompson, he encompasses so many elements of the Male Poet Stereotype that he could well be a compilation of Al Purdy, Irving Layton and Milton Acorn, just to name a random few.

Jim is arrogant, hard-drinking, self-centred. He is also talented, famous and seductively charismatic, though not everyone is taken in. The university refuses him tenure because of the cavalier way in which he treats the responsibilities of his job. His wife, Moira, tells anyone who will listen that she is "fed up with this bullshit," referring to Jim's general self-absorption and his frequent sulkiness exacerbated by heavy drinking. She's also had it with the starry-eyed students who hang on Jim's every word and do anything he asks of them in the hope that perhaps some of his magic will rub off.

Coady is an unflinching writer, one who fits filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's definition: "To be an artist means never to avert your eyes." Her description of Larry's pre-Christmas drinking session with Jim is an example. She depicts Larry's gradual awakening to the dark side of his idol with merciless clarity: Jim "raised his head to look at me. His eyes, although bloodshot, were precisely as black as his hair. He was like Dracula — Dracula with dandruff. His lips pulled themselves back from his teeth."

Larry's harrowing Christmas back home with his family brings with it further recognition. Larry now has the perspective of the outsider, and his relatives' interactions are by turns funny, tense and sad. This is part of what makes the novel so engaging. We are privy to Larry's development not only as a poet but as a human being.

The 35-year-old, Edmonton-based Coady has created yet another impressive work of fiction.

Eva Tihanyi teaches at Niagara College in Welland. Her most recent poetry collection is Wresting the Grace of the World (Black Moss Press).

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