Compelling comic tale reflects urban life


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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/09/2010 (4635 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

YOU comma Idiot

By Doug Harris

Goose Lane Editions, 330 pages, $30

SOME critics have complained that Canadian novels don’t reflect the realities of contemporary urban life. For anyone who shares that view, Montrealer Doug Harris’s debut will be a welcome antidote.

The main character in this oddly compelling comic novel is a decidedly urban figure: Lee Goodstone, not quite grown up at age 28. Unemployed. A small-time hash dealer.

He’s not a prepossessing character. Not much to look at, for starters. Overly tall, skinny, hollow-cheeked, hollow-chested, he’s also cynical, selfish and unambitious.

He lets his mouth run ahead of his brain, and at times exhibits a stunning lack of judgment, living up to his own assessment of himself in the first chapter: “You’re an idiot.”

Lee is a contemporary version of the can’t-do-anything-right comic hero, like ’40s movie character Henry Aldrich with more profanity and less good humour, alienated and pessimistic. Nevertheless, his story is the kind that keeps you reading, if only to find out how badly he’s going to screw up this time.

Lee lives in a shabby area of Montreal where nothing much happens — time treads water, as he puts it — and many people, like him, seem content to “slide through life doing as little as possible.”

He watches TV, goes out with friends, hangs out in the park, talks aimlessly on the phone. Life has an endless-summer feel to it, as if the present could last forever.

Until it starts to change. He sleeps with Honey, his best friend Johnny’s girlfriend. A girl in the neighbourhood goes missing, foul play is likely, and Lee’s friend Henry is a suspect. And someone else is trying to elbow in on his drug business.

Lee’s life becomes suddenly complicated. Now that he’s involved with Honey, what will happen between him and Johnny, who’s at the centre of their group of friends? Will he lose that friendship, and everything else?

Then there’s Henry and the missing girl. Lee is sure Henry knows more than he’s telling (which isn’t much). But here’s where he messes up in a colossal way: his attempt to intervene, when he thinks the media are targeting Henry unfairly, rebounds on Henry and on his own drug business.

It’s almost painful at times, reading about someone whose life sucks so badly, but it’s made bearable by Harris’s ironic wit, often pessimistic and cynical but also laced with dry humour.

There’s also a fine comic set piece, in which Lee, Henry, Johnny and a fourth friend, Aaron, play a round of golf, giving mock-Pilgrim’s Progress names to features of the golf course with deadpan seriousness. “If you pull it on this hole,” Lee warns Henry, “you could end up in the Trees of Perdition.”

Strangely enough, the fact that the entire narrative is in the second person — Lee speaking of himself as “you”– doesn’t get tedious. It feels odd for the first 20 pages or so (as it did perhaps in American Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City), but after that the pronouns don’t stand out any more.

Where the narrative does get tiresome is in Lee’s exchanges with his drug supplier, who keeps embroiling him in lengthy conversations in which he tries to get Lee to guess what he’s about to say. This is exasperating for Lee, and even more so for the reader.

Many things change permanently for Lee, and he suffers some losses. And it would not be giving too much away to say that he grows up just a little, too.

Joanne Epp is a Winnipeg writer.

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