In the beginning, Joel gets a new job. It’s a moment that might be filled with potential, promise. He could be the figure on the cover of the novel, leaping into the air.
Alternatively, Joel could be that figure on the cover and be plummeting to the earth, about to land – hard. Or, he could be suspended between the two states.
There are three characters at the heart of The Desperates: Joel, Edmund (whom Joel is about to meet on a telephone call in his new job), and Teresa (Joel’s mother).
Joel is working in Toronto, working as much to overcome his sense of failure as actually working.
Edmund is wallowing in Toronto, in the wake of his lover’s death (which wasn’t exactly recent, but might as well have been).
Teresa is dying in Kenora and has been trying to conceal the worst of that from her more sensitive son, Joel, but her days are numbered.
There is a spectrum there, an arc: a leap becomes a fall, the living plummet towards death. And if all of that sounds painful, that’s because it is.
Times are hard, but the characters’ arcs intersect: new possibilities emerge. Take Edmund, an older man who, after meeting Joel, feels suddenly and brilliantly renewed.
“For once, his loneliness does not strike him as quaint, some small household imperfect that can be easily sidestepped, like a gouge in a floorboard. He is punctuated by his loneliness. He has learned all he can learn from austerity. It’s officially Time for Fun.”
That bit, loneliness like a gouge in the floorboard is nice, isn’t it.
There is more of that in Greg Kearney’s prose. Not in excess: an occasional flourish.
“Edmund thrills to the kid’s face. It’s a fist of a face, wind-burned and blunt, with small, spiteful grey eyes and a tight, angled mouth, like a hasty hem.”
Mostly the story takes root in character and voice, which unfold naturally.
Dialogue and scene: readers perch on the margins, observe as the characters discover and re-discover truths (and deceptions) about themselves and those around them.
“His mother’s endless, only slightly cruel curiosity about life’s small phenomena: this was something he [Joel] took for granted until he moved to the city. Not everyone takes an interest like his mother does; many people prefer to overlook the little curios of a given day.”
This isn’t a pronouncement. No glowing epiphany. Joel has gone back to Kenora to see how his mom is doing, and they’re just having an everyday kind of chat after they have watched “Out of Africa” together – again.
When he notices this small detail (and it is funny, too, because of the specific curios they discuss), it rests there, so the reader can settle into this ordinary intimacy, which is so profoundly threatened by his mother’s rapid physical decline.
Teresa, ironically, is the most lively character of the bunch in some ways. “Better to be a vengeful person who finishes what she starts than to be a radiant person who doesn’t do anything,” she says, taking careful and deliberate aim at a long-time enemy in Kenora.
You would think Terea is the character who makes this observation: “Sure,just fold me up and tuck me away like last summer’s lawn chair. As it should be.” But she is not.
Teresa has had her share of difficulties in the town, however. “‘I told you about Teresa’s son, Joel,’ Monty says to his wife in a sympathetic whisper. ‘There’s some concern that he is a homosexual and also not sanitary and a layabout. We’ve all been praying hard for him.'”
And there, in that paragraph, is a hint of what is truly remarkable about The Desperates. Yes, it is a heartbreaking story in many ways. But it is also hilarious, face-twistingly funny.
Perhaps if Joel had been unsanitary and a layabout but, at least, heterosexual, concerned townspeople might not have felt the need to pray.
Perhaps if he had simply been a homosexual, but a sanitary one and an ambitious one (also, perhaps, ambitious about being sanitary), everyone could have relaxed, prayed less often, or less vehemently.
But the fact remains that the characters are all long strings of adjectives that don’t always (or even ‘often’) meet their own or others’ expectations.
And, somehow, Greg Kearney makes that fundamentally okay, not only for them, but for readers as well.