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The Case of Lena S.

by David Bergen

Long before The Catcher in the Rye had been discovered by the mainstream, I got caught passing J.D. Salinger’s classic of adolescent angst to a friend in Grade 10 math class. Our twentysomething teacher confiscated the book – and then kept it long enough to read herself. Halfway through David Bergen’s The Case of Lena S., I realized delightedly that this novel is going to give the same sort of illicit pleasure to young and formerly young readers.

Mason Crowe of Winnipeg is 16, his parents are splitting up, school is mostly a drag, and he is strongly attracted to girls who are testing limits. He teaches tennis to Seeta, a girl of East Indian descent bound for an arranged marriage but who’s trying to pack in a lot of flirtation and drunken parties beforehand. He falls in love with Lena, the manic depressive oldest daughter of a very Christian family. He hits Winnipeg’s bars with Maryann, a model.

Bergen is 45, but he’s caught the rhythm and speech patterns of today’s young. He indulges in one post-modern furbelow – footnotes that comment on the unreliability of the characters’ observations – but otherwise this is strong, third-person prose that is as clear as Mason’s gaze as he looks out over the city from his mother’s apartment balcony.

The novel’s philosophical underpinning is less clear. A quote from Kierkegaard opens things, and the Danish philosopher is one of the authors that Mr. Ferry, an old blind man for whom Mason works, has the boy read aloud. Kierkegaard wanted to write a novel because a story has “more possibilities” than philosophy, Mr. Ferry says. He didn’t, but what “if I did this?” the old man asks. “Decided to write a novel about a 16-year-old boy … and show the boy in all his innocence and guises … [and] scatter Kierkegaard’s words like seeds, only I wouldn’t acknowledge that these were his words, they would just appear, like signposts to the attentive reader.”

The attentive reader, eh? You’d have to read Kierkegaard yourself to determine if Bergen has pulled that off. Regardless, his excellent writing adds piquancy and nuance to what might have been just another coming-of-age tale.