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A Boy of Good Breeding

by Miriam Toews

Tell me, is there a Canadian, male or female, who doesn’t know what a Zamboni is? Miriam Toews, in her second novel A Boy of Good Breeding, would have us believe that in spring 1996 several people in the town of Algren, Manitoba didn’t. That, in particular, a young single mother named Knute, who is hip enough to know about Camille Paglia, doesn’t.

Not very likely, it seems to me, and that unlikeliness is symptomatic of the problem with A Boy of Good Breeding.

The plot is far-fetched too, but that’s a different matter. Algren, with about 1,500 citizens, is a contender for the title of Canada’s smallest town (anything smaller than 1,500 is a village). Mayor Hosea Funk desperately wants Algren to win because the Prime Minister, who Funk suspects may be his natural father, has promised to visit the winner on Canada Day. So Funk plots to make sure the town’s population is neither too large nor too small.

Pretty preposterous, eh? But the reader could accept it, if within that ridiculous situation, Toews presented a coherent world. She stumbles, though, because she introduces things that don’t make sense in the world she describes, like the hockey-challenged Knute.

Toews’ debut Summer of My Amazing Luck was shortlisted for the 1997 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, won the John Hirsch Award for the most promising Manitoba writer, and the McNally Robinson Bookstore book of the year.

A Boy of Good Breeding does have its moments. The book’s tone owes something to Garrison Keillor’s ruminations on Wobegon, Minnesota, or Stuart McLean’s stories of The Vinyl Cafe: short sentences, colourful characters, and a lot of charm in the timing of the telling.

And Toews’ jokes do prompt a laugh or two. What is a Zamboni, after all: “some Italian model CD player” (Knute’s idea), “a wrestling hold or a type of pasta” (her mother’s suggestion), or (from her best friend and the father of her child, respectively) “a type of revolver used by female members of the Russian Mafia” or “Hungarian slang for a hard-on.”

But, as they say, maybe you had to be there. Maybe next time Toews should tell her stories aloud. The printed word is just too permanent for humour which dissolves when the reader has time to think: “hey, that doesn’t make sense.”