The Lesser Blessed

Larry is a Dogrib Indian growing up in the small northern town of Fort Simmer. His tongue, his hallucinations and his fantasies are hotter than the sun. At sixteen, he loves Iron Maiden, the North and Juliet Hope, the high school “tramp.” When Johnny Beck, a Metis from Hay River, moves to town, Larry is ready for almost anything.

In this powerful and often very funny first novel, Richard Van Camp gives us one of the most original teenage characters in fiction. Skinny as spaghetti, nervy and self-deprecating, Larry is an appealing mixture of bravado and vulnerability. His past holds many terrors: an abusive father, blackouts from sniffing gasoline, an accident that killed several of his cousins. But through his friendship with Johnny, he’s ready now to face his memories—and his future. [X]

I honestly don’t know where to begin with this one.

I like it.

I think I like it.

No, wait …

One day we were having a huge debate about whether it was environment or upbringing that creates a criminal. I looked around. Wasn’t it fucking obvious? With the quiet bleeding labour of shellfish in our lockers. The sweet rotting flesh of our feet. The fluorescent lights making me weakdizzydemented. The crab cream two desks over. The gum under my desk. The spits on the floor. The silverfish. The crunch under my runners. The bleeding badge of the sun. The crunch under my runners. My father’s teeth. Kevin Garner was selling drugs in the back row. Clarence Jarome was jamming his HB pencil into the primer of a 12-guage slug.  Everybody in the room, as their bodies cooled out, had their eyes fusing shut, and Juliet was nowhere to be found. (Van Camp 8)

I am actually pretty sure I love it. But it is an ache-y kind of love, you know?

To say that this is a mix of Catcher in the Rye and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian doesn’t quite cover it. Neither do descriptions like “honest” or “raw”. The Lesser Blessed is a story about stories and story-tellers and despite it being fiction, I am tempted to say that there isn’t a single lie in it. Instead, it boasts of many different kinds of truths.

There is, for example, the truth of a complex history- we catch glimpses of a past as evidenced by the presence of systemic oppression (casual racial stereotypes, for instance), BUT! There is also a celebration of the history that protagonist’s family have managed to preserve, such as oral history and language. There is also a fair deal of looking to a new kind of future- one that involves the reluctant (and sometimes not reluctant at all!) intermingling of stories and people and cultures. The act of staring at an unknown future isn’t merely an act of hope or faith. In this book, it is an act of compulsion, an act of self-preservation. It is at once a choice and not a choice at all.

And all of this social and cultural history parallels the private histories of the characters. A complex past haunts pretty much all of them, while they try to forge on. And yet, looking to the future can be hard when your past is the cause of great trauma. At these moments of revelation, the storytelling becomes more complex than ever because even if the past is mis/remembered by the protagonist, the element of pain is so visceral in the narrative, one cannot truly doubt the narrator.

All of this maddeningly complex layers of truth and fiction are presented to readers … from a teenaged boy. Plus, the people who interact with him. And make no mistake, Van Camp is exceedingly good at creating characters who are all so frustratingly, inspiringly humanAlso, Van Camp’s protagonist, Larry, has one of the best narrative voices I’ve ever read. He ranges from empathetic to disdainful, kind to cruel, and incredibly funny to distressingly dark- but he never feels like he is out of character.

I have had the pleasure of meeting Richard Van Camp (the same time I got to see Julie Flett) and it is near-impossible to believe that such a warm and cheery person could write such dark things. (Though, it is very easy to believe that he wrote a character like Larry. Van Camp has a magnetic stage presence.) I feel compelled to add that Van Camp made the first page of my copy look misleadingly cheerful.

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So, I’m not saying this story is for everyone*, but if you do pick it up, know that it is a deceptively light book that can weigh heavily on your mind for ages. Just trust that Larry’s voice will carry you through.

Oh and there is a movie adaptation out on DVD and on iTunes that ought to be checked out! Here’s the trailer:

(A quick word: I haven’t seen the movie yet but the trailer looks a lot more grim than the book. The book was ridiculously funny. At times. When you’re not meant to be clutching at your pillow and crying. You know.)

*Except, I will recommend this to anyone who intends to be a teacher or work with multi-cultural populations in any capacity.

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