Mean Boy, by Lynn Coady, may cause you some embarrassment if read in public. This is mainly because of the intense, gasping, hyena-like laughing fits it induces in inappropriate places where you thought it would be perfectly safe to read a book, such as on the bus, in the library, or alone in a coffee shop. It doesn’t matter how many times I read this novel—it has me practically rolling on the floor every single time.
Mean Boy is told from the point of view of Lawrence Campbell, a young, skinny, second year student obsessed with writing, and with the idea of becoming a poet. Lawrence leaves his home in PEI, where his parents run a motel, to attend Westcock University in Timperly, New Brunswick. Lawrence makes his move to the mainland in the hopes of studying with Jim Arsenault, popularly considered among Canada’s best living poets. Lawrence idolizes Jim, is paralyzed by self-consciousness around the famous poet, and is completely in awe when Jim chooses Lawrence as his favourite. Lawrence’s nerves never calm, however, and we get to watch him nervously bumble through his relationship with the moody Jim, who is as likely to tell Lawrence that he loves him as he is to tell Lawrence to go to hell.
Things devolve as Jim reveals himself to be deeply petty in his dealings with his peers and colleagues, and as his depressive moods begin to take over his life, his teaching, and his relationship with Lawrence. Mean Boy follows the ever more complicated mentor, tormentor relationship of Jim and Lawrence, while seamlessly weaving in a cast of lovable and bizarre fellow students who weather Jim’s moods and unprofessional favouritism along with poor Larry. Mean Boy’s particular brand of Canadiana will also keep you wrapt, from the squirrels who trash Lawrence’s apartment, to the sarcastic speculations about whether the quotations around the “Ham Dinner” on the Legion’s sign are supposed to signal some kind of euphemism.
Though Lawrence is arguably better off than Annabelle from last week’s book, he too suffers the sting of disappointment when he finds out his poetry hero is only human—and not a very good specimen at that. Like Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z., Mean Boy is a wonderful refresher on the excitement of stepping into a creative writing workshop for the first time. However, Mean Boy delves deeper into the desperate need young writers have to impress their mentors, showing how invested writers become in the opinions of their teachers, and exploring the injuries a mentor can inflict if they take advantage of this need. Mean Boy outlines an important lesson for any creative writing student—whether they have an altruistic teacher or a vindictive one—that is, not to forget how to write when their mentor isn’t around.