Toronto actor Darren Hynes’ new novel centres on two disaffected teens in a small Labrador mining town, one of whom – a snarling, be-muscled thug known as Pete “the meat” – is a bully in the classic mould. Pete and his posse’s victim of choice is Wayne Pumphrey, singled out for his smallness and the fact that he never fights back. The attacks begin with verbal taunts (“faggot” and “pussy”), but quickly get physical: Wayne’s tormenters hurl ice balls at his face and make him eat yellow snow. When things get really bad, Wayne wets himself.
The line between “classic” and “stereotype,” though, is a fine one. And with bullying being an increasingly popular focus in current YA literature, authors need to do more than rehash familiar caricatures. That Hynes fails to do so is one problem with Creeps. Another is that, aside from Wayne’s fear of daily menace and a subplot involving a play that almost doesn’t go on, there’s not a lot to the story.
Most of the novel is spent fleshing out the teens’ father-centric domestic problems. Wayne’s miner dad is an alcoholic; Pete’s looks surprisingly clean-cut but is not his biological dad; Marjorie, the loner who becomes Wayne’s love interest, lost her father to suicide, an event that consigned her mother to ongoing depression. The novel’s setting is contemporary, yet Wayne lets off steam by composing handwritten letters that he never sends – an artifice that could have been avoided had Hynes opted for first-person narration instead of third.
Hynes’ writing is often fluid and sometimes funny, especially early on. But although the author grew up in Labrador City, Creeps never gives us any real sense of place – a missed opportunity given that precious few stories are set in the region. The book’s ending isn’t hugely satisfying either. Pete’s harsh and exceedingly abrupt comeuppance means he remains flat and unknowable. Librarians and teachers should also be aware that one of the novel’s final scenes, involving an attempted rape with a hot dog, might be disturbing for some readers.