By Joanne Proulx. Viking Canada, 356 pp, $28, hardcover
You know how coming-of-age stories always follow two boys rafting down the Mississippi, dealing with issues of class and race? Or four sisters growing up, and falling in love, during the Civil War? Not this time.
Joanne Proulx's growing-up-in-Michigan novel kicks ass. Seventeen-year-old Luke Hunter has the usual problems (scoring better girls, grades, and grass), but he's got serious issues, too. His saintly best friend dies in the opening pages, and if Luke manages not to deal with the fact that he somehow foretold that death–or to understand the depth of his loss–for 350 pages, well, it's not from lack of smarts. In fact, he's so smart he can figure a dozen ways to blunt the pain and delay the hour when he has to reckon with the meaning of his extraordinary life. He gets laid, smokes a lot of dope, designs concert T-shirts, meets a prophetic dwarf, sees the Red Hot Chili Peppers, curses continuously, meditates on the librarian's breasts, builds a panic room, and abandons everyone who ever loved him.
Proulx's big accomplishment is voice; Luke glows with rage, fear, and horniness. He hates his small town, that "rank little pinprick", home of the car-fabric factory that makes "that slick blue nubbly crap you drive around on". And he hates most people in it, which isn't hard when the locals are so charming they petition the police to publish the names of the men caught having sex outdoors together. He lusts for a girl he shares a bed with one night: "I could see the bedspread rising and falling on her chest, and my cock stiffened, confident it could take over from here." And he's disgusted by anyone–doctors, preachers, or druggies–who promises to end his visions for a price.
Luke's grudging epiphanies feel real. His halting dialogue, as limited as his interior thoughts are expansive, feels real. His emotional range, from pissed to murderous with side trips to miserable and elated, feels especially real. Finally, a growing-up book by someone who actually grew up.
Joanne Proulx reads with Catherine Hanrahan (Lost Girls and Love Hotels) tonight (May 17) at 6:30 p.m. at the Railway Club (579 Dunsmuir Street). Admission is free.