Mean Boy.


390 pages
ISBN 978-0-385-65975-X
DDC C813'.6






Reviewed by Douglas Ivison

Douglas Ivison is an assistant professor of English at Lakehead
University in Thunder Bay.


Since the 1998 publication of her debut novel, the Governor General’s Literary Award nominee Strange Heaven, Lynn Coady has established herself as a significant writer. The short story collection Play the Monster Blind (2000), and her second novel, Saints of Big Harbour (2002), confirmed her reputation as a literary star in the making, receiving widespread critical praise. The broader canvas and more complex narrative structure of her second novel clearly demonstrated Coady’s growth as a writer and suggested that readers could expect great things from Coady. As a result, Mean Boy has high expectations to meet.


With her previous novels, Coady had become identified as regional writer, valued for her complex portrayal of Cape Breton, where she grew up. Her previous work was also notable for its attention to the difficult experience of adolescence and the social pressures faced by adolescents. As successful as her previous work was, then, it is refreshing to see Coady shift her focus somewhat in Mean Boy.


Extending her journey into the past (Saints was set in the early 1980s), Mean Boy is set in the mid-1970s at a small but well-respected undergraduate university in the Maritimes. Lawrence, an English student who desperately wants to become a poet, idolizes his creative writing professor, the charismatic poet Jim Arsenault. Jim is hard drinking and self-destructive, and has a tendency to antagonize others, including the rest of the English department, but he has a small circle of admiring students, including Lawrence, who go to great lengths to please and protect Jim, despite his chaotic and often petulant behaviour.


Lawrence is seeking a mentor, one who can help him escape the constraints of his small-town P.E.I. background, and wants Jim to fill that role. The novel centres on their relationship, and on Lawrence’s increasing disillusionment with Jim and his realization that Jim is selfish and self-involved. Mean Boy effectively describes the complex and fraught relationship between creative writing student and professor, and shows us a character, Lawrence, on his way to overcoming his often debilitating need to receive validation from a mentor. Like Saints of Big Harbour, then, Mean Boy describes the struggle of an initially naive young man to overcome the dysfunctional patriarchal mentorship of a flawed father figure.


If Mean Boy does not quite achieve the vivid characterization and storytelling verve of Saints of Big Harbour, it is more tightly written, coherently structured, and, possibly, ultimately more effective. It is a compelling and engaging novel, one that confirms Coady’s status as an important voice in Canadian fiction.


Coady, Lynn., “Mean Boy.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 19, 2024,