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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
What simmers hottest in Van Camp’s book are the universal struggles: Larry’s blunderings toward sex, dive into sniffing gas and hot-knifing hash, and beat-downs by bullies who, an hour later, may be confidants. Two catalysts present themselves: the return of Larry’s wayfaring father, possibly for good, and the arrival of Johnny Beck, a brash student who leads Larry on an odyssey of getting laid and raising hell.
That, more or less, is the plot. Few YA books, though, are so inadequately served by a simple synopsis. The first lines set the tone: “I remember. It is the summer of my crucifixion. I try so hard be pure; I take two baths a day.” The pace is frenetic, yet unexpectedly sad, chopped into photo-flash bits with titles like “Jesus Is a Gentle Place and Asses Are for Biting.” Huge moments happen abruptly, as if vital connective tissue has been cut. Sentences are followed by other sentences that contradict the first. And straightforward, everyday scenes, without notice, mushroom into prose that borders on nonsensical:
“With the quiet bleeding labour of shellfish in our lockers. The sweet rotting flesh of our feet. The fluorescent lights making me weakdizzydemented. The crab cream two desks over. The gum under my desk. The spits on the floor. The silverfish. The crunch under my runners. The bleeding badge of the sun.”
Here’s the surprise: the book is a delight. Larry’s slowly uncovered trauma, though massively disturbing, is realistically packed with Larry’s hilarious and sexually explicit commentary. He’s a can’t-sit-still, blabbermouth cutup who calls himself, ridiculously, “Big Daddy Love,” and his natural defense mechanism is lewd wordplay: “Bannock and lard make you hard!” he cries, while praising “magnormous breasts” and enthusing about “doggy-style” every chance he gets. This magical noise is scored by Larry’s beloved heavy metal—poets, we come to think of them, by the names of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and AC/DC.
It is the rare debut that manages to turn author inexperience to an advantage. A new author’s note reveals that Van Camp worked on the novel from ages 19 to 24, and it’s difficult to imagine an older, ostensibly better author writing with such dangerous, reckless velocity. Every page feels like Van Camp is sprinting naked into a dark forest, an activity so dangerous no one but a young adult would try it.
Canadians embraced the book like Americans didn’t; we can thank them for its reemergence. (A 2012 movie version starring Benjamin Bratt certainly didn’t hurt.) The anniversary edition includes two short stories featuring the book’s characters, one of them, written on the occasion of the movie, that proves Van Camp can still find Larry’s bloody, boiling vein.
Modern readers might find The Lesser Blessed resembles nothing so much as another tragedy-laden coming-of-age book, John Green’s Looking for Alaska (2005), right down to sharing the same weak point: an implausibly dreamy, beautiful, and tragic girl. Though it’s worth noting that The Lesser Blessed predates Looking for Alaska by nine years, the biggest difference, of course, is that there is little comfort to be found in Van Camp’s book. Its halcyon moments are cigarette scorched, and it has teeth—lots of them. The Lesser Blessed stood apart in 1996, and there has yet to be anything like it.
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