Des­per­ates both bleak and com­i­cal

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - EMILY M. KEELER

Greg Kear­ney wrote a deeply tragic book about death and ex­pects you to laugh. And why wouldn’t you, faced with the im­mense ab­sur­dity of sad­ness and loss? Laugh­ter may not be as strong as mor­phine or crys­tal meth, but it’s an anal­gesic none­the­less.

Best medicine or no, The Des­per­ates, Kear­ney’s first novel, fol­low­ing two short story col­lec­tions, is full of the good stuff. In try­ing to tell you about the book a con­tra­dic­tion presents it­self, one I’ll call the “but it’s funny!” para­dox. Judge for your­self: The Des­per­ates, set in 1998, is about a hor­ri­bly in­se­cure 19-year-old twit, Joel, who is be­yond ir­ri­tat­ing in his self-ob­ses­sion and nau­se­at­ing, wil­ful naiveté. But it’s funny!

Joel’s mother, Teresa, is a lov­ing but com­pletely coarse, de­pressed, small-pota­toes-in-a-small-town kind of woman who has been di­ag­nosed with a par­tic­u­larly hor­ri­ble case of lung can­cer. But it’s funny!

A man Joel had sex with once, Ed­mund, is an AIDS sur­vivor who suf­fers from the in­tense mis­for­tune of out­liv­ing all of his friends and the love of his life only to fall into the ter­ri­ble hor­rors of a ru­inous crys­tal meth ad­dic­tion. But … it’s funny? You won’t be­lieve me, but I’ll tell you any­how: It ac­tu­ally is.

Kear­ney’s gift is to take his of­ten grue­some and truly aw­ful ma­te­rial and spin that dark­ness into joy. The “but it’s funny” para- Greg Kear­ney Cor­morant Books dox re­solves it­self in the read­ing of the book. It’s de­scrib­ing The Des­per­ates that’s tricky.

“Funny” is such a light, mal­adroit word for the comic reg­is­ter Kear­ney’s work­ing in. Us­ing it feels cheap, but the syn­onyms are even worse. How can one de­scribe the gut­ting loss of an al­most en­tire gen­er­a­tion of gay men as “joc­u­lar?” What’s “droll” about ter­mi­nal can­cer? And yet.

There’s an un­de­ni­able light­ness to be­ing alive — the hu­man con­di­tion is ab­so­lutely a farce, all of us cel­e­brat­ing strik­ing our own in­di­vid­ual matches, when these brief frag­ile flames are use­less against an eter­nity of dark­ness.

In braid­ing to­gether the lives of his three pro­tag­o­nists, Kear­ney uses the fric­tion of clash­ing calami­ties to gird against an easy slide into sim­ple melo­drama. The pri­mary axis is Joel, a char­ac­ter who, for all the prom­ise of his youth, is com­pletely in­suf­fer­able.

Be­fore mov­ing back home to Kenora, Ont., from Toronto, he takes a job as a sex line oper­a­tor.

The harsh kink is too much for naive lit­tle Joel, even as he later tells Ed­mund, “I’m all about in­ti­macy that is, like, har­row­ing.”

Kear­ney’s prose is so gen­tly mock­ing in his depic­tions of young Joel, so de­li­ciously cruel. It’s a real feat to have writ­ten a char­ac­ter who, for all of his self­con­scious­ness, all of his em­bar­rass­ment and all of his vague de­sire — for men with large hands, to be a poet and per­former — is so prin­ci­pally un-self-aware.

Ed­mund, though, stole my heart. Be­cause Kear­ney used the char­ac­ter’s in­ter­ac­tions as a means of tran­si­tion­ing be­tween their over­lap­ping sto­ries, and be­cause Ed­mund is rel­a­tively re­moved from Teresa and Joel in small-town On­tario, I found my­self won­der­ing idly when I’d get to see him and his new, “bul­bie”— (er, crys­tal meth-) ad­dicted, Paris Is Burn­ing-ob­sessed friend Binny.

In snip­pets, Ed­mund goes from a staid mourner to a crazed junkie hurt­ing the peo­ple he used to love.

And Teresa, who is dy­ing as she lived (in a huff and a hurry), is as bleak and comic as the rest, even if her story is also framed as Joel’s story.

The Des­per­ates, like the time we’re af­forded in this world, is im­pos­si­bly bleak and dark. But it’s funny.

The Des­per­ates

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