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A piercing epistolary novel, The Antagonist explores, with wit and compassion, how the impressions of others shape, pervert, and flummox both our perceptions of ourselves and our very nature.
Gordon Rankin Jr., aka “Rank,” thinks of himself as “King Midas in reverse”—and indeed misfortune seems to follow him at every turn. Against his will and his nature, he has long been considered—given his enormous size and strength—a goon and enforcer by his classmates, by his hockey coaches, and, not least, by his “tiny, angry” father. He gamely lives up to their expectations, until a vicious twist of fate forces him to flee underground. Now pushing forty, he discovers that an old, trusted friend from his college days has published a novel that borrows freely from the traumatic events of Rank’s own life. Outraged by this betrayal and feeling cruelly misrepresented, he bashes out his own version of his story in a barrage of e-mails to the novelist that range from funny to furious to heartbreaking.
With The Antagonist, Lynn Coady demonstrates all of the gifts that have made her one of Canada’s most respected young writers. Here she gives us an astonishing story of sons and fathers and mothers, of the rewards and betrayals of male friendship, and a large-spirited, hilarious, and exhilarating portrait of a man tearing his life apart in order to put himself back together.
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Lynn Coady is an award-winning writer, editor, and journalist. She was born on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia and now lives in Edmonton, Alberta. She is the author of Mean Boy, Play the Monster Blind, Saints of Big Harbour, and Strange Heaven.
05/23/09, 9:42 p.m.
There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous, and it makes me remember how you told me that time you were afraid of fat people. That is, afraid of being fat and hating those who were, so fear and hating, like of a contagion, the same way homophobes—guys who are actually maybe gay or have the potential for gayness within them—are thought to be afraid of homos and want to annihilate them, make them not exist. You said you were embarrassed by it, though, your hatred of fat people, your fear. You knew it was shallow. You knew it was wrong. You thought it was a prejudice that was beneath the enlightened likes of you. And now, with all this time gone by, here you are in the picture. Looking chubby and pompous.
When you told me that, I remember being a little awed because we were kids, we were two young guys, and we hung out every weekend and got drunk and declared, or might have declared, I love you, man! at some point or another, but you—you—as much as you talked you never really said much of anything, you gave nothing away, whereas I was always yanking off hanks of my own flesh and shoving them bloodily at everyone around me, it felt like, half the time—No please, take it, take it, really. And people would accept those bleeding red chunks because what choice did they have? I was a hulking drunken wreck who might fall on top of them at any moment, so they’d avert their eyes, embarrassed, as was only right.
Not you, though. I heard an expression the other day in reference to this other tight-lipped son of a bitch, actually it was the prime minister. He keeps his own counsel. And I thought that’s perfect, that’s perfect, that’s Adam. The operative phrase being his own and the general concept being self.
The point is, you kept your own counsel most of the time. You never turned to me in the midst of one of our drunk-stoned hazes to blurt: Help me, man! I’m all fucked up! How guys sometimes do. Not you though, not like I was always doing, or felt like I was. You never said boo. For a while I thought that was very cool about you, that your head was just too full—heaving with profundity.
It is stupid how young men admire one another, the cluelessness of it, the non-reasons.
And then, lo! He turns to me, does sphinx boy, in the middle of a typical beered-up weekend rock-and-roll show on campus. Our mutual friend Tina is ripping up the dance floor in front of us. Tina has put on some pounds, as girls can do in just a handful of months, the same way they immediately take them off the moment it becomes obvious that guys aren’t sniffing and circling around like they used to. Lately we’ve taken to calling Tina Tiny behind her back. A few months ago we would have been watching Tina dance with quiet horny awe, but now she just looks fat and silly and we’re embarrassed for her and disliking ourselves for thinking this because she’s a cool girl, we like her, and why shouldn’t she fucking dance if she wants to? And covering it up with asshole jokes.
And he turns to me, does sphinx boy, his face naked and craving like I’ve never seen before. I lean in. My friend needs me! “I think I’m prejudiced against fat people.”
I have never heard such shame, such self-loathing in my friend’s voice.
“That’s okay, man,” I reassure him. “Everyone hates fat people, they’re fucking fat.”
“No. I need to get over it.”
I swing an arm around your shoulders and crush you against me, happy for the opportunity to be kind and big-brotherly.
“Look at her go,” I say, gesturing to Tina out there undulating, eyes closed, jaw so slack her tongue’s almost hanging out, dancing herself into a sweat-slick frenzy. I found out later she at that point was well aware of her new nickname and had started taking speed to offset things.
“She’s working it out there! She’ll be back to baseline hotness in no time.” I would turn out to be right about that. But that wasn’t what you were worried about.
“I mean,” you say once I release you, because I can tell it’s awkward to continue your confession when crushed against my manly chest, “it’s me.”
Of course it was you, Adam.
“I’m afraid I’ll get fat. I’m deathly afraid of it. Getting fat.”
And look at you now, say it together everybody: Chubby, pompous.
What a shitty way for me to begin! After you have been so nice. After all these years. I didn’t even think you’d write me back. And if you did, I never imagined you would say: “Sure! Send me your story. I’d be delighted to take a look.” That’s what you said. Take a look, that’s very noncommittal of course, but then that’s the Adam I remember.
Well guess what? I was being noncommittal myself. I was being noncommittal in that I was lying. That whole last e-mail I sent was a lie.
First of all: “I haven’t read your book yet but am very excited to do so.” But I have read it, Adam. I’ve read it a few times now.
Second of all, I was being friendly and nice in my e-mail, but in fact that was not a true representation of how I am actually feeling toward you. I was baiting the hook. I wasn’t sure you would be particularly pleased to hear from me, if you’d even bother to write back. So I thought I should be nice. I thought I should be all the things I knew—assuming you were still the same old Adam—you would respond to: complimentary, admiring, affectionate.
Third, I said I had a story of my own. I said it was short. The first statement was the truth, but the second was a lie. I said I was trying to write and I would appreciate your help. That’s not true either. I’m writing just fine at this very moment, I don’t need your goddamn help. I said it wouldn’t take too much of your time—not true.
You said, and I’m cutting and pasting here:
Sure! I’d be delighted to take a look.
So I am taking you at your word.
Okay, I thought I’d better go get another beer to help grease the wheels and now I’m back. So here we go.
I was born in a small town, like John Cougar Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. Remember that time we all sat around arguing about whether or not Springsteen was a Jew? And Wade was so appalled—for some reason he couldn’t get his head around the idea. And I got all in his face, having fun, like I was totally outraged: What are you, KKK or something? Jews can’t sing? Jews can’t be born in the U.S.A.? And he goes, No, Rank, no it just—it doesn’t line up. In my head. It was like that time you told him Freddie Mercury was gay and the two of you argued all night until finally Kyle yelled, Dude! The name of the band is Queen. And the next day all Wade’s Queen on vinyl mysteriously disappeared. Anyway, you said it didn’t matter what Springsteen was, what mattered was we shouldn’t say “a Jew.” You said we should say “Jewish.”
For years I went around studiously avoiding the term “Jew” because I didn’t want to offend anyone—people like you, that is. And then one summer a guy I was working construction with used it in reference to his brother-in-law. And I go, Look, man, I don’t know if you’re supposed to say that these days. And he straightens up and stares at me and goes, What’s wrong with Jew? And I say, Like it isn’t offensive? And he goes, I’m a Jew, dickweed. Am I offending you?
So thanks for that, Adam.
And yes, what the hell! I am going all the way back and starting from day one, with my birth. I can do whatever I want because it’s my life and it’s my story and it exists and has existed on its own very specific terms, despite what you have done. It hangs in the air around me at all times, like if I hadn’t washed for a couple of months, which has sometimes been approximately the case—a personal stench made up from the chemical composition of my sweat, from everything I ate, from everywhere I went, everything I sniffed on the ground in front of me, all the crap I ever laid down and rolled around in.
You know all this, or I thought you did. I gave it to you, these intermittent chunks, I pulled off hank after bloody hank of flesh and just handed them over and you were so coy, you averted your eyes and pretended to be embarrassed like the rest of them when really you were squirreling away all those hanks and secretly stitching them together and building Frankenstein’s monster.
. . .
Starting again. Beer the third.
I was born in a small town. That is not such a big feat in this country. You were born in a small town, John Cougar was, Springsteen the Jew, everybody was born in a small town. Whoop-de-shit. Let’s not name a specific territory. We both know they’re all the fucking same.
There was a dad, there was a mom. You know this too. The dad was a prick, the mom was a goddess. Gord and Sylvie.
Already this feels like a cliché, which is the fault of none other than Adam. It wouldn’t feel like that if you didn’t exist. It wouldn’t be part of someone else’s fairy tale, it would just be my own nameless stench hanging over me. The biggest pisser? The fact that the cliché of me was all you really took. You boiled a whole life, an entire human being, Adam, down into his most basic, boneheaded elements. Good Mom plus bad Dad hinting at the predictable Oedipal (oh give me a fucking break) background of—voilà—Danger Man! One seriously messed-up dude. Not very creative, is what I’m saying.
Okay, so anyway she died, as you know, and left me with the prick. Back in school, you’ll remember, I was always saying how my dad was a prick but I never got specific. What I didn’t say was that he was a prick because he had Small Man syndrome. I heard that term just a few years ago and immediately thought: Gord. Dad was about five foot five and a half and found this intolerable every day of his adult life. When I shot up at fourteen, he was delighted—as if he’d suddenly added my height to his own.
Here’s another cliché: Every guy whose dad was a prick talks about that moment when he realizes he can take his old man—how empowering that is. But I always knew. I feel like I could’ve taken him at six if I wanted. I was a thug from the moment I popped from the womb, or so I’m told. Ten pounds, bruiser hands and feet.
“How old is this kid?” my father is said to have hollered when the nuns brought me out from the cold-storage room or the basement or wherever they stashed unwanted Catholic babies up for adoption—ta da! But Gord was suspicious. He thought they were trying to pass a toddler off on him.
Sylvie, however, immediately held out her arms to me, bracing herself, bending a little at the knees.
“The little bastard’s old enough to drive,” my dad insisted, watching as Sylvie heaved me against her shoulder into a burping position, which I made prompt good use of. Meanwhile a frost had crystallized the room. The nuns did not appreciate the B word, their slack faces tightened like sphincters, but what they failed to understand was that it had nothing to do with my illegitimate origins. Dad called people “bastard” as a matter of course. Anyone, really—men, women, and children. Teachers, bankers, and priests. Inanimate objects, even—a sweater with one arm turned inside out or a slippery fork. The nuns were just lucky he didn’t call me a cocksucker, seeing as how he used the terms interchangeably, depending on his mood.
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