Desperates both bleak and comical
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.