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.