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The Desperates

by Greg Kearney

ReLit Award–winning author Greg Kearney wants to shock you with his debut novel. He wants to shock you with its frank depictions of gay sex. He wants to shock you with its nihilistic undercurrents and its cast of characters barely holding on to the ledge of sanity. But he may also shock you with his novel’s intermittent tenderness and humour, and its great ambition. The Desperates is a darkly comic gambol through the lives of some seriously messed up people.

Those people include young and naive Joel, who washes up in Toronto to take a job at a phone-sex hotline as a way of kick-starting an acting career; Edmund, who meets Joel through the hotline and briefly takes him as his catamite; and Teresa, Joel’s mother back home in Kenora, Ontario, who is dying of lung cancer and causing all manner of stress to the people around her.

None of these characters is particularly relatable or reliable, and yet Kearney deftly manipulates us into rooting for them just the same. He does this by throwing some impressive changeups in his prose: there are times when The Desperates is desperately funny, and others when it is heartbreakingly sad. There are sections that read as if Quentin Tarantino set a film in Toronto’s Gay Village: depictions of anal sex and crystal meth usage are raw and unvarnished. Other sections – such as Joel’s return to Kenora after being dumped by Edmund – examine familial bonds with great emotion.

This polyphonic approach helps reveal how Joel, Teresa, and Edmund are all taking advantage of second chances to find fulfillment or vindication. It also helps mask some fairly glaring character flaws: Joel’s cringe-worthy immaturity, Edmund’s sexual apathy, Teresa’s improbable vendetta against a fellow Kenoran who once slighted her.

Unfortunately, Kearney fails to close the bracket on his story, and Edmund’s narrative – if you’ll forgive the pun – sort of peters out. While the novel’s ending feels marred by this shortcoming, its closing chapters will nonetheless leave the reader with a tender, if somewhat twisted, sense of satisfaction.