Sunday, October 4, 2009

Saints of Big Harbour

Lynn Coady's prose is a magic carpet that speeds the reader smoothly through this 400-page coming-of-age story. It's set in the fictional Cape Breton community of Big Harbour, where most of the men are drunken louts.

The worst of the lot is Isadore Aucoin, a charismatic bully and self-pitying alcoholic. He tries to fill some of the gaps left by Guy Boucher's absent father. But what Guy wants most is a girlfriend, and he thinks he's found one in Corrine Fortune. Trouble is, she's a nutjob, and convinces herself, her brother Howard, and her best friend Pam Cormorant, that Guy is harassing her.

The self-absorbed Hugh Gillis strikes up a friendship of sorts with Howard. Both are recent high-school grads and bright enough to escape the limited opportunities of Big Harbour. Inexplicably they have chosen not to leave, despite being "bored to the point of wrath." Soon they begin trolling the streets looking for Guy and picking fights with strangers.

A dash of humour keeps the story from becoming too grim:

She necks at parties. Necking. Necking is weird. Everybody just necks with everybody. It doesn't really have anything to do with who you like and who you don't. It's just like trying everybody out -- taking them for a test drive.

"You watch your mouth!" Mackie screamed hysterically. "I'll fuckin kill ya next time I'll fuckin kill ya won't see me comin 'cause I'll fuckin kill ya."

If you could just call me a cab, ma'am, I'll be on my way. I don't need to come in, I don't want to bother you. Please. Just a cab. I know the number. Yes, look at me like I'm scum, that's fine. Loathing is good. I'm sure you don't want me on your step any longer than I want to be here. Could start vomiting, you never know. Not pleasant for either one of us. So. Please. A cab.

The book's title is an ironic reference to the inhabitants of Big Harbour, and to two rival hockey teams, the Big Harbour Giants and the Port Hull Saints. It's also a tip of the plaster hat to the statue of Saint Anne, which inspires a sad thought in Guy's mother -- religious statues avert their eyes downward out of embarrassment over the pathetic lives of the people around them.

Saints of Big Harbour was published to extravagant praise and selected as a Best Book of 2001 by The Globe and Mail.