The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Author Lynn Coady wastes little time in introducing the reader to the “antagonistic” nature of her central character, Gordon Rankin, universally known since childhood as “Rank” since he shares his name with his father. Here is her opening paragraph:

There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous, and it makes me remember how you told me that time you were afraid of fat people. That is, afraid of being fat, and hating those who were, so fear and hating, like of a contagion, the same way homophobes — guys who are actually maybe gay or have the potential for gayness within them — are thought to be afraid of homos. So want to annihilate them, make them not exist. You said you were embarrassed by it, though, your hatred of fat people, your fear. You knew it was shallow. You knew it was wrong. You thought it was a prejudice that it was beneath the enlighted likes of you. And now, with all this time gone by, here you are in the picture. Looking chubby and pompous.

What has provoked this outburst? Rank’s old college running-mate, Adam, has just published a book. Rank thinks he recognizes his college self in the book and he doesn’t like the portrayal. So he’s decided to take the summer to write his own “book” in retaliation — in the form of a string of lengthy emails to Adam. The fact that Rank is now approaching 40 and the events of both “books” (we never get to see any of Adam’s beyond some of Rank’s impressions) took place a couple of decades ago would seem proof positive that our antagonist is capable of holding a grudge for a very, very long time.

Here’s another early expansion of Rank’s character, still in his first email to Adam, which also introduces most of the elements of his “story”:

I was born in a small town. That is not such a big feat in this country. You were born in a small town, John Cougar [Mellencamp] was, Springsteen the Jew, everybody was born in a small town. Whoop-de-shit. Let’s not name a specific territory. We both know they are all the fucking same.

There was a dad, there was a mom. You know this too, approximately. The dad was a prick, the mom was a goddess. Gord and Sylvie.

Already this feels like a cliche, which is the fault of none other than Adam. It wouldn’t feel that way if you didn’t exist. It wouldn’t be part of someone else’s fairy tale, it would just be my own nameless stench, hanging over me. The biggest pisser? The fact that the cliche of me was all you really took, you boiled an entire life, an entire human being, Adam, down into his most basic, boneheaded elements. Good mom plus bad dad hinting at the predictable Oedipal (oh give me a fucking break) background of — voila — Danger Man! One seriously messed up dude. Not very creative of you is what I’m saying.

This review has featured a couple of long quotes already because it seems only fair to let the author establish her own story. If you find them off-putting, this is not the book for you. If they strike a responsive chord or even a neutral one, read on.

While Adam serves as the lightning rod for Rank’s current burst of outrage, there are obviously a number of large chips on his shoulder that extend back well before his college days. Most of them focus on his “father”, Gord — Rank, born out of wedlock, was adopted and Gord announced to the nuns when the quite large 10-pound infant was introduced to him and Sylvie “the little bastard’s old enough to drive.” Gord has delighted in telling that story, with the double entendre of “bastard” since it is a description he frequently uses, ever since.

As Rank sees it, Gord (who is only 5’5 1/2″) has small persons’ syndrome, among his many other failings. So when Rank has his first growth spurt at age 14 (there will be another) and turns into a very large hulk early on, Gord (at least in Rank’s opinion) engages in some serious projection on his adopted son. Rank’s first job in his early teens is to serve as a parking lot bouncer at Icy Dream, Gord’s Dairy Queen-like business, sending drug dealers and users on their way — a violent incident in the lot ends up with Rank heading to reform school. While imprisoned there, a sympathetic counsellor puts Rank into hockey where his size proves such an advantage that he ends up with a hockey scholarship at a New Brunswick university — hockey goons have to come from somewhere after all. His refusal to obey a coach’s instruction to beat up the opposition means an end to that scholarship and begins the series of incidents with Adam (a bookish nerd who is one of an unlikely quartet including Rank who hang around together) that provoke this book. I won’t reveal them.

There is no doubt that anger and resentment are the dominant themes in the novel, all serving Rank’s victim identity. And the death of three National Hockey League versions of Rank this summer (two by suicide, one an overdose) add a topicality to the story that Coady could not have foreseen.

On the less depressing side of the coin, however, it should be noted that Coady does find moments in her novel to introduce some perceptive observations. Consider, for example, how Icy Dream came to be the family business:

Another example of my father’s monomania: he always tells the story of how, once he got the loans together to buy some kind of franchise, he had “the choice” between an Icy Dream and a Java Joe’s. Like it could only possibly be one or the other — the wrong choice and the right. As if some kind of celestial fast-food overseer descended from the heavens with a ID cone in one hand and crumpled JJ’s cup in the other — obliterating all possibility of, say, a Pizza Hut, a Mickey Dee’s — displayed them both to Gord and thundered: Pick!

As Rank notes with some delight (since he loathes Gord even more than Adam), in the town of 7,500 his dad’s lone Icy Dream is currently surrounded by no less than six JJ’s coffee outlets: “‘I never claimed to be a prophet,’ shrugs Gord when the topic of the Great ID Wrong Decision of 1981 comes up.” Canadians, at least, will find a number of similar observations about how events and decisions made in the 1980s produced the country and communities of 2009, the present tense of the novel.

It was those elements that kept me interested in The Antagonist. A secondary theme, perhaps even stronger, is that I have known a few versions of Rank in my time: Canada does have enough young hockey thugs who grow into men, often resentful, that most mature males know more than one or two. The problem, however, is that Rank is not only an unsympathetic character, he is a pretty one-dimensional one, in both his youth and current middle age. Were it not for the memories that Coady raised of similar people that I knew, I would have had even more issues with the book.

I suspect that is true of most coming-of-age novels: if they don’t spark personal memories, or if the character is not made interesting, they just don’t work. Coady obviously succeeded in doing this with members of the Giller jury with her book being chosen for the longlist — I am not sure she will be that successful with many readers.

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17 Responses to “The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady”

  1. dovegreyreader Says:

    Great review Kevin and achieved the perfect balance for me as a reader, told me enough to give me the essence of the book and make a reading decision on it. It’s probably a no from me but I know two ice hockey fans in this family who would probably really enjoy it!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: There is a serious thread in the book about just how the “angry” male gets produced, although I think Coady’s decision to focus more on character (and the tension in relationships as males reach adulthood) shuffles it somewhat to the side. I’d say it probably is a no for you.

  3. Vicki Fox Smith (@TheNoodledBrain) Says:

    So far (I’m only 25% of the way through the book) it’s a yes for me.

    The scene in which Rank’s father praises him to the police officer showing that Gord sees his strengths and goodness and how that is at such extreme variance with how he treats Rank just broke my heart. It also resonated deeply with me as a daughter of a woman who would sing my praises to strangers without actually valuing them herself. Likewise the passage where Rank loses his temper with his mother and, in the present, realizes that he had been abusive to her in a way that echoes his father’s behaviour. Again, it broke my heart.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Vicki: Thanks for the comment and please return when you have read more — I think you are finding Rank a more sympathetic character than I did. I find it positive when an author is able to develop a book where the people (and story) land differently with different readers.

  5. Vicki Fox Smith (@TheNoodledBrain) Says:

    Thanks Kevin. It may be a day or two before I finish the book. I’m about 2/3 of the way through it now and still entranced by it. I’d probably be further along, but I keep stopping and reading other things that I am finding referenced (or at least being reminded of) as I read.

    For example, the description of the pivotal scene taking place in Northern Ontario–the hunting trip that changes everything between the two people that end up being Rank’s parents. The section begins with Rank considering Gods that care or do not care what happens on the earth below them and culminates in the vivid description of Rank’s mother’s struggle to kill the snow goose.

    I had to stop reading the book and go reread Yeats poem Leda and the Swan, which I will copy below.

    A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
    Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
    By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
    He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

    How can those terrified vague fingers push
    The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
    And how can body, laid in that white rush,
    But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

    A shudder in the loins engenders there
    The broken wall, the burning roof and tower[20]
    And Agamemnon dead.

    Being so caught up,

    So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
    Did she put on his knowledge with his power
    Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

    I’m not transfixed by the hockey in the book, but rather by things like this. Maybe I should write my own review, LOL. I can see this book being taught in universities because of the ease with which one could use something common and familiar (the overt story) to talk about the big ideas that people have struggled with from the time people first began trying to understand them.

    And don’t let me get started on The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock…

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Vicki: Again, my thanks for your comment — you are certainly experiencing a different novel than I did. I’m not a poetry reader (and an agnostic when it comes to symbolism) so I am not surprised that you are finding references that I did not and appreciate your sharing them.

    In the meantime, I’m happy to look after the hockey, college bar culture and development of the Tim Horton’s versus Dairy Queen debate that made Canada what it is today. :-) Visitors here can make their own choice, given there is so much on offer.

  7. David Says:

    I finished reading this last night. I should start by saying that the one Lynn Coady book I’ve read previously (‘The Saints of Big Harbour’) left no lasting impression on me; I don’t know anyone like Rank (of all the school/college social groupings, the one that has least resonance for a British reader is the “jock” – they don’t really exist here in quite the same way); and I know next to nothing about hockey. So it’s fair to say I approached this novel without a great deal of expectation, and indeed the blurb’s description of Rank as a “hockey enforcer” (a what?) was pretty off-putting.
    But: I thought this was a wonderful book. Not a great book perhaps but certainly very good, and thoroughly enjoyable. That “hockey enforcer” description was entirely misleading since hockey isn’t at all central to the novel. Kevin, you found Rank to be unsympathetic and one-dimensional – I found him to be quite the opposite.

    Initially I was hoping we’d get sections of Adam’s book quoted to see what it was that Rank was refuting, but by the end it becomes clear that Coady has made entirely the right decision by not giving Adam a voice, since it seems like Rank was maybe only a minor player in Adam’s book and the book wasn’t even that big of a deal to begin with. The way Rank eventually starts writing about himself in the third person and making himself a character in his own story was clever. And I loved the observations about Facebook – maybe not original, but so true!
    But yes, the stuff about anger, and relationships and stories – it all worked for me, and I’m really glad I read it.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, David — I can’t help but wonder if the elements of the book that did strike me ended up getting in the way of my appreciation of Rank as a character.

    I had the same reaction to Adam’s book that you did. Initially I was eager to see what had set Rank off — the idea that it really was nothing started to form quite early and I liked the way that Coady all but confirmed that in the end. Rank was a literary explosion waiting to happen.

  9. Janice Collins Says:

    I also read the book and at first I thought it seemed to be copying Catcher in the Rye’s style but I was glad when this didn’t seem to be the case. I must say I enjoyed the book. I don’t think it was a great book but it was thought provoking.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Janice: A few weeks after reading it, I would say the parts that I liked are living better in memory than the parts that I didn’t — a worthwhile read, but not a great book.

  11. alison Says:

    I just finished The Antagonist last night. I came to it slightly reluctantly as I thought it would be about a hockey enforcer and my interest in hockey isn’t that strong.
    I was taken by the premise right away, and in fact it moved so quickly into Rank’s rants (as emails can so suitably offer) that I didn’t mind not reading portions of Adam’s book.
    I so often agree with you Kevin that I am surprised, and don;t know what it says about me, that I found Rank to be an empathetic character. I found his descriptions of being an adult in a child’s body stopped me long enough to ponder those hulks that so many of us knew in our youth and dismissed by stereotype. I like how Coady lead us through the stereotype from an insider who is really an outsider’s point of view (by that I mean I think she did a great job of letting us see how Rank ended up in those situations in a way that put the reader in the situation and yet not of it because of Ran;s adult perspective.
    From time to time I did find myself thinking Coady is such a good writer, but surely Rank, history teacher or not, would not be eloquent or assured in words, (in fact he read more like an English teacher than history, as he never talked about history or historians, but about Prufrock and literature.
    I kept reading, delighted by the approach, wondering about the big act of violence that was surely coming, and while it finally did appear, I have to say that the moment we discover how his mother had died, to me was truly heartbreaking and managed to explain so much without overtly trying to explain anything.
    So yes, flawed, but a good read.

  12. RickP Says:

    I’m about half way through. I’m hooked for sure but I’m trying to figure out if it’s because of the writing or because it reminds me of my childhood.

    I grew up in an isolated mining town on the east coast and although I didn’t know someone exactly like Rank, I sure knew lots of characters like Mick Croft and even Rank’s father. the characters at university were also very familiar.

    I’ll need to complete it and think about it for a few days to get a better read on my feelings about it.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: It was the characterization that worked best for me — and I have to say does come back some weeks after finishing the book. I may have been a little harsh with my intitial impressions of this one, although I’d say that was more a reflection of how good some of the other books on the longlist were (I’d still take Laferriere and Blaise over this one, even if it is better than I originally thought).

  14. Deborah Serravalle Says:

    Thanks for the review, Kevin. I heard the author on CBC and found the premise for this story interesting. Especially with the recent, heartbreaking revelations of hockey enforcers in the news. Your observations,.however, gives me a little more information about the novel. And the comments made by others are also insightful.

    So for now, with so many books, so little time, I don’t think this is one I’ll pick up.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Deborah: A few weeks after reading it, I would say this is one of those books that is edging up in impression — some of the better scenes do keep coming to mind. I still wouldn’t characterize it as a must read, however. A good one, certainly, but I can understand the decision to let it pass by (that observation, of course, probably means it is certain to win the Giller).

  16. BuriedInPrint Says:

    The aspect of this novel that I most enjoyed was the intricate dance between what is known by each man (the letter-writer and the recipient), what is assumed to be known (most often it’s Rank assuming but others, too, like the police man in that early scene), and what the reader can assemble as truth/understanding based on what s/he thinks is known.

    I think that takes a good bit of skill, keeping us in the dark “just enough” (because of course we are not a part of this exchange: it’s very personal stuff), and feeding us “just enough” to keep us turning those pages. And to make it all look chaotic, accidental, too, because of course Rank’s emotions are overwhelming and he is not a writer.

    Admittedly, I am already an admirer of Lynn Coady’s writing (I read her collection Play the Monster Blind earlier this year), but The Antagonist is something else entirely. Yes, I’m hooked. But I can also see, as you’ve said, that some readers just would not connect with this tale.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: As you can see from the comments, those who like this book tend to really like it. Coady is a very good story teller — there is nothing complicated about her and she is skilled at taking care not to reveal too much too soon. I look forward to seeing where she heads from here.

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