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Not An Idiot

YOU comma idiot, a novel by Doug Harris, Goose Lane Editions, 2010 , 327 pp. $29.95 hardbound.

If you want to know what’s gone toxic in Canada’s prize-driven novel writing industry—aside from the fact that it has become little more than just an industry—look no further than this novel by 30-something Montreal writer Doug Harris. I don’t mean this as a slur on Harris or YOU comma idiot. I mean that it probably wasn’t in serious contention for any of the prizes, and that it should have been.

It’s the subject matter, you see, and the main subject, a slacker named Lee Goodstone. Goodstone sells dope, haplessly tries to protect his still-more-hapless friend Henry, sleeps with his best friend’s girl-friend, does his best to care for the child he’s accidently fathered, is unreasonably worshipful of the media, and wants to be the centre of attention without knowing why or where the centre of anything is. He’s lazy, indolent and unmotivated, and mostly unapologetic about it.

But here’s the thing, see?  Goodstone is also likeable, has a strangely sensible moral code, and is trying harder to figure out what a human life is supposed to be for than Stephen Harper’s entire cabinet and PMO.  Several other characters in the novel are similarly likeable, and similarly, as it were, trying hard to understand where and what they are.

And here’s the other thing: YOU comma Idiot is a well-written book by a talented writer, and both are more entertaining and relevant than any of the books that won Canadian literary prizes in 2010 or their authors. Harris’ characters are more nuanced and authentic than you’ll find in the prize winners, and what they’re about—the vast demographic of the young-and-demoralized at the bottom of urban Canada’s dogpile—is, page-by-page more quickening and alert and uncomfortable.  It’s a book full of surprises, some of them uncomfortable, a few uplifting, none plot-driven or arbitrary, and there’s absolutely no navel lint clouding the view.

I’ve had to reread the book from start to finish trying to find a resonant passage to quote, the kind that most novels have that give you the significant flavour of the writing and its characters. I couldn’t find one, and the only way I could give you the flavour of this book is to quote the whole thing, start to finish. It’s that integrated that any extraction would be out of context. The closest I got was an incident in the first third of the book in which Honey, Lee’s best friend Johnny’s girlfriend, gives him a blowjob that somehow manages to be unexpected and expected at the same time. But when I tried to extract it, it was 11 pages long, and all of a piece. Finally, I found this, which is a modest assignation of how Lee sees himself in the world:

The way things are in life, at least the way you see it, every single encounter involves a confrontation on some scale. Big ones, medium ones, small ones. Subtle one. Mostly subtle ones. Buying bread at the store. Ordering a meal in a restaurant. Meeting a friend, approaching a stranger. On some level, each act of human interaction evokes an innate decision as to whether to dominate or be dominated. Impose or acquiesce. You either lift your eyes to meet the other guy’s or you don’t.

And that’s just the way you see it. In your lifetime there have been 72,910 confrontations. So far. Of which you have, in your estimation, lost 41,694. And won 31,200. Sixteen draws. A success rate of 38 percent. Based on numbers you’re making up right now.

I’m not sure why Doug Harris wrote the book. He’s an underground movie maker who runs a video production company, and he’s clearly a busy and engaged guy with a first-rate brain. I guess he wrote it because he could, and because he wanted to tell a different sort of story than the ones we mostly see these days. The result is a story that has a curious sort of purity—a high velocity purity that doesn’t once check in the mirror to see if it looks good.

I’m glad he did, and I wish there were more novels like it.

800 words December 29, 2010

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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