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The Insolent Boy

by John D. Stiles

After earning a nasty reputation in his claustrophobic Nova Scotia home town, young Selwyn Davies runs off, like many a wandering, forever-unsatisfied protagonist before him, to earn a similar reputation around the world. The pace of John Stiles’ first novel is breathlessly economical, so it’s not long before Selwyn is all grown up, but still insolent.
Styled as a latter-day Anne Shirley, the busy-bodied redhead of Green Gables, Selwyn is brought up by older, adoptive parents – Hugh, the town rector, and Bea, his tea-and-biscuits wife. (The occasional Green Gables-ism – the rectory has a larder, a successful person is a “clever-clogs” – colours Stiles’s otherwise grey prose.) If Selwyn is Anne, he’s Anne with a grudge, and with very bad luck. He snubs his doting parents, unwittingly gets involved in an incestuous relationship, and becomes an arsonist and an alcoholic. In Vancouver with nothing better to do, he finds work as a roadie for the ills, a hard rock band. Selwyn sticks with the band for years, though he feels exploited and depressed; he especially hates their one hit song, “Feel the Pain.”
Selwyn’s insolence is an apparently uncontrollable, genetic attitude, but it reads like an affectation – more of the author’s than the protagonist’s. Stiles tries to create a character who is both loathsome and likeable, even heroic (in that antiheroic kind of way), but can’t write up to the challenge he sets for himself. Selwyn’s life is eventful, but it reads as lacklustre: pivotal relationships are randomly sketched in, and the dialogue is flat and often absurdly melodramatic. Stiles’ language is also laboured or awkward in places: “he handed me a cassette, somewhat tiredly.”
The Insolent Boy follows Selwyn from childhood to middle age, when he finally decides that life is indeed rough. Readers may not want to wonder what happens to him afterwards.