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Another fine mess

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The Antagonist - Lynn Coady Mick Croft was one of the few town punks who actually was a punk, not just a gangly, belligerent, functionally retarded teenager like the rest of us. He dealt drugs, of course, and brandished knives, of course, and had been expelled for kicking the gym teacher, a man with the unfortunate name of Mr. Fancy, in the ass when he was bending over to gather the volleyballs into a canvas sack.

Quite early on, as Gordon "Rank" Rankin has just begun his series of tirades and counternarratives--the epistolary record which makes up the novel--he casually brings up this street-corner punk, the smarmy Eddie-Haskell-ish delinquent Mick Croft. And over a few passages and paragraphs scattered through the novel, he sketches a devastatingly precise portrait which starts as small-town archetype but quickly fractals into strange, uncategorizably messy configurations, a helluva character and not just a cartoon. Rank's empathy--Coady's care and compassion with even the most minor, and dimwittedest, denizens of her character study--shine through even as the prose is barbed, the insights biliously funny.

And in the middle of this digressive sketching of a minor character, another casual aside gives us Mr. Fancy, who disappears in two pages, whose name made me bark in surprised laughter.

The book is full of glorious kicks in the pants: rude low humor, a delight in language from the cheapest Fancy to more precise filigrees, a bubbling rage that can escalate toward verbal (and hints of physical) violence in the emailed rants Rank sends to his former friend, and most startling of all a constantly surprising generosity that recognizes (even as the Mick is mocked, the Fancy is flattened, the fratboy foolishness is on full display) the pain and loneliness and loss that everyone feels, scrambling about, trying to make sense of who they can trust and who will let them down.

And the novel is hard-nosed: everybody lets you down.

But it is also enormously forgiving: no one deserves to stay down.

Rank is an oversized misfit--smarter than his town and his appearance, but burdened with so much internalized anger and self-loathing that he fairly hums from constant exasperation. His voice--the novel is a series of emails from Rank to an old college pal Adam--drives the novel, which flits in and out of time with a casual ease that belies the complexity (and intelligence) of its structure. Adam has written a novel, in which a minor character commits some nasty business, and Rank sees himself there--sees a trust broken, sees his life reduced to cartoon. So he writes back... and the one-sided conversation bends on an arc toward revelation.

I loved Rank. I loved the rants, the warmth, the fury, the feelings. These characters, the small town--I felt, as with the best of Richard Russo's novels, a sense of old home (with all the pros and cons, nostalgia and deep-seated anger, such recognition brings). This is as fine and wonderful a novel as any of Russo's, the best sad/funny novel I've read since Skippy Dies, and Coady is now an author I *need* to read--I can't wait to track back into her work. It's a blast.