Mean Boy is set at Westcock University, a fictional campus in the fictional town of Timperly, New Brunswick, in the mid-1970s. Its focus is Jim Arsenault, the poet-professor who runs the newly established creative writing program at Westcock, idol to his students and bane of the administration’s existence. The administration’s denial of his application for tenure, and the rallying round of his students, sets the plot in motion.
Here’s a run down of the key players:
Jim Arsenault is a charismatic, egomaniacal, alcoholic poet. The narrator describes him thus: “The thing about Jim is, he’s a man. More than that—a guy. He is the new breed of poet. He doesn’t fluff himself up, doesn’t wear jewellery or turtlenecks… Jim doesn’t even wear sports jackets, let alone a tie. Work shirts and jeans. Often he comes to class ‘straight from the woods,’ he tells us. He’s big on the woods. Or ‘straight from working on my roof.’ Or his porch.”
Larry Campbell, the narrator, is a second-year student who is completely in Jim’s thrall. He’s full of romantic notions about “real poets” and “artistic friendships.” He sees poetry as an escape from the family that he loves but is ashamed of and a life spent working in the family business, a motor-hotel and mini-putt on Prince Edward Island.
Sherri Ann Mitten writes poems about desire that make her male classmates squirm. Bubbly and blonde (“with her yellow curls going everywhere like a doll or a crazed cheerleader”), she is, in Larry’s view, the antithesis of what “girl poets” should look like.
Claude is a cosmopolitan character who has been to New York and San Francisco. He wears black turtlenecks, writes villanelles, and ultimately becomes enamoured with language poetry.
Todd, “all flailing limbs and pissed off energy,” writes rhyming poetry about industrial accidents. Unlike Larry, he’s proud of his working-class roots.
Chuck Slaughter is a jock and a bully. He’s not in the creative writing class and has no interest in poetry but has inexplicably been befriended by Jim. He has referred to Larry as “fuckwit” since their first acquaintance. To Larry’s mind: “He is not particularly interesting aside from his horrific size and his ability to maim on the football field.”
These are all recognizable types and Coady makes great sport of them. The satire is biting and hilarious. I particularly relished Larry’s internal dialogue during meetings of the creative writing class which made quite clear that the comments of the students had little to do with the work under discussion and everything to do with jockeying for position and currying favour with Jim. The student poems which are quoted in the novel are perfectly evocative of the undergraduate creative writing experience (for example, “The Ass of My Head”—Larry’s “first drug induced effort”).
But ultimately the genius of the book lies in the extent to which Coady is able to delve beneath these stereotypical surfaces. Over the course of the novel, Larry’s preconceptions are challenged and many of his illusions shattered. Coady provides not just laughs but deep insights into the individual characters and into the complex power relations that are at play here.
The existence of divisions and hierarchies among poets and different types of poetry is a growing preoccupation for Larry over the course of the novel. Many of the characters decry the marginalization of Maritime poets by the Canadian literary establishment, and of working-class poets by ivory-tower academics. For his part, Jim handily divides Canadian poets into two lists, separated by a line of chalk down the middle of the blackboard. On one side are the “Hucksters” (Toronto poets) and on the other “The Real Thing” (poets from the east coast, the west coast, the prairies): “He handed out the work of the Real Thing writers but said that to inflict the Hucksters on us would be contamination.” Larry’s vision of the purity and unity of the poetry world is further shaken when one of his classmates communicates his enthusiasm for various schools of experimental poetry that don't fit on the grid:
Movements. It reminds me of the way Gramma Campbell used to discuss her bowels after every meal. I don’t want there to be movements when it comes to poetry. It’s hard enough to figure out Hucksterism versus the Real Thing, just trying to write a line that’s any good.
While Coady very effectively skewers various literary targets, she never diminishes the value of poetry or of creative aspirations in the process. An exchange between Larry and Dermot Schofield, a Toronto poet who visits Westcock to give a reading, gets to the heart of things:
“It’s all part of the game,” he tells me.
“Game?” I say. “Poetry?”
“Not poetry,” he says. “What you’re talking about. Being reviewed, acknowledged, known. Not writing poetry, but being a poet.”
It’s “being a poet” that Coady takes the piss out of here, not writing poetry.
I found Mean Boy wildly entertaining much of the time, but I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it exactly. Larry is so self-conscious, so ill at ease, that it was sometimes downright uncomfortable to be in his company. However, it’s quite likely that my discomfort is rooted in the fact that I was once a pretentious teenage poet and, even at his worst, I could relate to Larry dismayingly well.
Lynn Coady is an enormously talented writer and Mean Boy is a fascinating novel.