Funny, Sad and True

A middle-aged man circles the painful secret of his adolescent years

Oh, to be young again. Those heady undergraduate days as a new-grown adult living for the first time without adult supervision. The sheer exhilaration of it: The blundering self-confidence. The roiling, incoherent desire. The beauty and privilege of being all but completely ignorant of one’s own ignorance.

Inevitably, some guys had a house off-campus where the furniture should have been taken out and burned, but in the way of young men it was a palace to you—because that was where the buddies hung out and the Big Conversations happened, bull sessions punching well into the night, fuelled by a little learning, a lot of booze and the brick of hash that was always on the coffee table.

You threw up in that house. You had sloppy sex in that house with girls who were more fucked up than you were. One night, in the heat of conversation, you suddenly became so angry at one of your closest cronies—just in that instant you realized what an asshole he was being—you had to be restrained before you came to blows. Good times, man.

And they were good times, at the time. The 19-year-old life is lived at such a pitch that every moment is momentous, but everything recedes into the past almost immediately. To be 19 is to be fully alive in the present and yet instantly amnesiac. Of course, the hash helps.

And age burnishes what memories persist. Twenty years later, who wouldn’t prefer to remember it all in romantic hues, as a necessary stage in the formation of self? Good thing there was no one at the time keeping a record of what it was actually like.

But what if there had been? What if, long before Facebook, there was a kinescope of stuff you did and said when you did not know any better—a highlight reel of what a jerk you were? The Antagonist, Lynn Coady’s terrifically clever novel of belated self-awareness and self-forgiveness, is like eavesdropping in a confessional. It is a record of a man confronting, denying, explaining and finally understanding his own conduct 20 years in the past.

As the novel opens, our protagonist, Rank—Gordie Rankin—is incandescent with rage, and you do not want this guy angry at you. He is a mountain of a man with something of a temper. He is not a thug—he never was—but there have been … incidents. He has, as they say, a history of violence. Turns out his one-time college buddy has published a novel. This would be the bookish Adam, who never said much but who was taken into what became a Gang of Four compadres; who once slept with a girl Rank had just bedded because she was so drunk she stumbled into the wrong bedroom on the way back from the bathroom; to whom Rank, emotionally quivering, once spilled his inner demons; to whom Rank has not spoken and has barely thought of in 20 years. Rank is a character in Adam’s novel, and not flatteringly portrayed. More than that, the plot features the private thing Rank confessed that night, something that involved violence, certainly, and possibly death.

Rank is pounding out his anger in an email, and The Antagonist consists entirely of Rank’s emails to Adam, furiously trying to set the record straight—that mug’s game of the aggrieved in the age of the internet. Rank is going to retell his own story, dammit, and we shall see who is the asshole.

Lynn Coady, by the way, as far as I know, is an actual woman. How she understands the culture of young men so well is beyond me. There is only one female character in The Antagonist and she is dead by the time the narrative begins.

This is a highly accomplished novel, not least because it draws no attention to its own sophistication. Despite, or through, the fact that it is written in the voice of only one character—a man recounting his version of events in fits and starts and indignation—all the other characters emerge vividly, and in ways the narrator himself does not appreciate. At one point Rank warns Adam not to presume this barrage of email is revealing in any way except as Rank intends it. Don’t bother, he says, trying to “detect psychological subcurrents, underlying motivations that perhaps I’m not even aware of myself.” Yeah, right.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad, said Philip Larkin. No, insists Gordie Rankin, in his case it was just his dad. The adopted son of an East Coast hoser and a francophone mother, little Gordie adored his mum and became progressively more exasperated by his father. The character of Gord Sr. is superbly realized, not to mention a scream. He is the Oscar Leroy character from Corner Gas (“Jackass!”) writ true. An uneducated man with no internal regulator, of course he would drive his son around the bend. But to anyone else he is plainly a colourful character who loves his boy and wants nothing but the best for him, and where is the fault in that?

Gord Sr. owned an Icy Dream franchise (think Dairy Queen) in a Maritime town, and Gordie had to work there flipping burgers and making sundaes even after he growth-spurted into a giant by age 15. The other teens in town showed up for the fries and milkshakes and just because it was a place to hang around, and there was Gordie the glandular case behind the counter wearing a paper hat, and his irascible father fuming at the punks who loitered in his establishment spending no money.

What does a kid that size and ill at ease with the world do in small-town Canada? He plays hockey, which is how Rank ends up at an unnamed Maritime university (St. Francis Xavier?) on a hockey scholarship.

But running throughout the book, tugging at the narrative, is the thing Rank told Adam that night. The novel is funny and sad and true and poignant, and if that were not enough to keep the pages turning there is the lure of finding out what the hell Rank confessed to, and why he is so hurt and enraged that Adam would use it as a plot device in a novel.

One knows it was something violent and traumatic and with lasting consequence. Could it have been a fight in the parking lot of the Icy Dream? Yes, that happens, but Coady makes sure you can see it coming. Could it have been something that got out of hand on the ice? Yes, that happens too, but it doesn’t play out quite as one might have expected. Perhaps an incident in the big, scuzzy bar in the university town where the boys buy their dope and Rank starts bouncing part-time? Yes, there is an incident, but again it is not what you thought might happen.

Or does it have something to do with the death of his beloved mother—the fact of which is established in the novel right from the start? By the time her death is described, the book has only pages left. And just like mother and son, you do not see it coming. Sylvie Rankin dies weeping.

That revelation casts a new, retrospective light over everything we have been told up until then. As the hermeneutic circle closes, so the meaning and understanding of the novel shift profoundly in one fell swoop.

Come to think of it, maybe those late night bull sessions about lit-crit philosophy were not a waste of time after all.