Percy Joyce, the protagonist of Wayne Johnston’s latest novel, is born with serious physical challenges: his face is discoloured by a large birthmark and his extremities are oversized. Percy’s ugliness is countered by the beauty of his mother, Penelope, who inspires sexual longing in every man in Saint John’s, including her son. Penelope’s appearance, like Percy’s, causes problems and affords certain privileges.
Abandoned by her fiancé, Jim Joyce, when she is two months pregnant, Penelope has to bear the stigma of being an unwed mother in the 1950s. Mother and son are considered cursed by the insular society of the Mount, the Catholic area of Saint John’s.
Percy and Penelope both have sharp minds and filthy tongues. They are at odds with the patriarchy and stifling control of the Catholic church, which Penelope has abandoned, but which colours much of their lives. Their neighbourhood is Catholic, their house sits across the street from a Catholic high school, and they are under constant scrutiny from the Archbishop, who attempts to protect Percy from the sadistic McHugh, a Christian Brother and director of the high school.
Penelope and her son live proscribed lives. Percy has no friends, in part because of his appearance. Like his mother, he is much smarter than those around him, so his isolation is almost complete. For her part, Penelope maintains a clandestine intimate relationship with Medina Joyce, Percy’s aunt, and a relationship with Pops MacDougal, a teacher who rents a room in the Joyces’ house.
The novel is told from Percy’s perspective, and while he is often funny, his relentless fixation on sex grows tiresome. The most engaging aspect of the book involves Percy and Penelope’s experiences as outsiders. The novel’s humour counters its essential tragedy: convention and venal power mongers are placed in opposition to human connection and love. However, Percy’s sexual interest in his mother is little more than creepy and diminishes the reader’s sympathy for the characters, who already have enough problems to contend with.