Flesh and brains

by JIM BARTLEY, Globe and Mail
May 17, 2008

Young Ryan, jock bag slung at his side, is working up the courage to enter the church rectory. It's a grey November in the 1970s. Snowflakes drift from Montreal's "gutter slush sky." Crossing Sherbrooke Street, Ryan narrowly avoids an unwanted encounter with a friend, then retrieves the hidden rectory key, lets himself in, and is soon being spoon-fed with Father Tom's character-building hockey metaphors.

These first images from musician Matt Bissonnette's debut follow an epigraph, from St. Augustine, about the "muddy" demands of the flesh "beclouding" the heart. A Penthouse centrefold among the priest's Life magazines extends the thought. Is there something about Father Tom's cozy cardigan that suggests sheep's clothing?

Skip to the blackboard jungle. Ryan, his friend Stephen and other buddies torment the new kid in class, whose freaky bid for acceptance - he orally services himself - ends with him stuffed into a washroom trash can. Ryan emerges as marginally less malicious than his coterie of bullies; he's the one we hope to like more.

We bounce forward and back in time. Stephen, Ryan and a few friends pursue a faltering punk band career as young adults, the road stories alternating with flashbacks to their dissolute school days. Girlfriends and groupies come and go; one, the bisexual Frances, becomes a sort of honorary guy and confidante. Chapters are titled, sometimes just with a place name (say, where the band is playing), sometimes with a clear thematic edge.

The chapter titled The Sufferings of Judas is a fish story with the structure and resolution of a finely crafted traditional short story. Sixty pages into the book, it gently pries open the inner lives of Ryan and Stephen to reveal depths of need that their reflexive braggadocio has kept under wraps. It's a magical moment, turning these faux-macho lads into the full beings that their callow posturing has masked.

To themselves, though, they remain masked, thanks in part to spectacular binges of drink and drugs. One extended LSD trip, seen from three different viewpoints, is completely, surreally convincing, mostly because its imagery so perfectly captures the un-dreamlike weirdness of acid trips. Another carefully honed chapter - also a small gem of a story - uses an AIDS test as its pivot and a highly risky sexual encounter as its flashback climax. The interplay of explicit body images and sensory recall is equally tender and ecstatic, and unencumbered by notions of literary discretion. It's down-and-dirty in the most honest and touching way. Bissonnette pulls us inside a crisis of desire and death, makes us feel bursts of rapture haunted by danger.

The novel is studded with these rare and riveting dissections of the human animal, interspersed too often with unsurprising filler. Lively things keep happening (drunken brawls, impulsive sex, mosh-pit reveries), but their power to divert fades with repetition even as they pull focus from the book's deeper through-line, which is all about Ryan and the secret he harbours.

Then the diversions abruptly end. Bissonnette brings us home to his true purpose: back to the rectory, to the boy and the Father. The final arc of suspense feels like a calibrated explosion. The redemption is ghastly and wonderful. You squirm and can't look away.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.