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Saints of Big Harbour

by (author) Lynn Coady

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Feb 2003
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2003
    List Price

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Back then it was spring. He had a truck. A girl had given him a picture for his wallet.

1982 starts well for Guy Boucher. But before long he feels the need to move to the town of Big Harbour to get away from his school, family life, and most of all "the supreme and utter retardation of my existence which mostly takes the form of Isadore".

An Acadian adolescent oppressed by boredom and poverty, Guy is made even more miserable by uncle Isadore who lives with Guy and his mother in exchange for use of his pick-up truck. Isadore is determined to make a man of Guy by feeding him drinks at age ten, coaching him to be an aggressive hockey player, and teaching him to box and not flinch when he's hit. Fighting is an accepted way of alleviating the tedium of small-town life, and violence finds its way into hockey games and school dances and bars.

Isadore is not an ideal role model, but he's the only man in the house since the departure of Guy's father. Isadore once moved away to make something of himself, but now is looked after by his sister, spends his disability cheques on booze, is prone to violent tantrums, and yet commands a certain local respect. He waxes eloquent on family values, loyalty and "being a man". He is a large, confident man, a natural storyteller, and people like to follow him. But in spite of his speeches, he is only concerned with himself, ignorant of the needs of others.

Driving the truck to a dance one night, Guy meets the lovely Corinne Fortune. Corinne also has a physical power that makes people want to share the glow of popularity. Like Isadore, Corinne is manipulative, and a compulsive liar who makes up stories for her friends to fulfil her need to be the centre of attention. Infatuated with her, Guy has no idea what trouble she will get him into. Soon there are two older guys hunting him down, and everyone in town believes he deserves it. Big Harbour is not all he hoped it would be.

Saints of Big Harbour shows Guy's story from shifting points of view, from Guy to bookish Pam to the schoolteacher Alison. The narrative is populated by a host of lively characters, such as second cousin Ronald, who regularly delivers "fresh deersteak and a two-litre pop bottle filled with holy water" to Pam's house. There are drinkers and fighting drunks and bitter ex-alcoholics, including those who attend the inappropriately named Alcoholics Anonymous program at the monastery. Isadore's coaching helps Guy stand up for himself, and in the end he must stand up against Isadore in order to make something of his life. His survival of a hard adolescence makes for a heroism all his own.

Saints of Big Harbour handles the bleak subjects of violence, addiction, small-town mentalities and destructive families with insight, irony and humour, in a compellingly accessible style reminiscent of Roddy Doyle.

About the author

Lynn Coady is a novelist and essayist whose fiction has been garnering acclaim since her first novel, Strange Heaven, was published and subsequently nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction when she was twenty-eight. Her short story collection Hellgoing won the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award, for which her novel The Antagonist was also nominated in 2011. Her books have been published in the UK, US, Holland, France, and Germany. Coady has been a journalist, magazine editor, and advice columnist, and is currently writing for television. She divides her time between Edmonton and Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @Lynn_Coady.

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Excerpt: Saints of Big Harbour (by (author) Lynn Coady)


All sorts of deals being made around here. According to Isadore, everything is working out "beautifully" for "everyone," meaning him. You'd think he'd planned on being arrested all along. So he is paroled to my mother for driving the truck not just drunk but without a driver's license or insurance. My mother pays the insurance now that she's got a job in Big Harbour. I drive the truck all around hell and back, chauffeuring the both of them. My mother into town for her job, Isadore into town (once my mother's gone as if she won't know) to the tavern. And what's Isadore's job in this great deal? Babysitting me, apparently. And Louise, who is seventeen and hardly ever around anyway. The judge was delighted, he said. "I'm just delighted at this prospect. What this man needs is the responsibilities of a home and a family. God bless his dear sister for her generosity."

But it was for the truck. She couldn't have taken the job without it.

Here is Isadore's idea of baby-sitting: he wakes up at seven when he smells the bacon I'm frying for breakfast. He staggers out of - whose bedroom? my bedroom - without even brushing his teeth or picking the crumbs out of his eyes and grabs the plate out of my hands just as I'm sitting down. Then he dumps a bottle of corn syrup all over the bacon so it's inedible for anyone except himself, and when I complain, he tells me to make my own. Make my own, like I hadn't just done it. He reeks. To cover up his bed head, he wears a cap that reads, Wine me, dine me, sixty-nine me!

"Don't forget to come get me at noon," he says when he's done eating, heading back to bed. So I get to take the truck to school, after dropping my mother off in Big Harbour, but so what.

My lunch hour is spent driving him into town. We stop at the bank first and he gives me money for gas. Isadore always has money these days. When he's not working in the tavern kitchen for Leland, he's getting welfare. When he's not getting welfare, he has his disability pension. This is Isadore's other job, according to the judge. Helping keep the truck gassed up. And paying for some groceries. "Contributing to basic household maintenance," said the judge. But I drop him off at the tavern and God knows when we'll see him again. He never arranges for me to pick him up, but he always ends up back at the house somehow. I get some fast food and then burn it back to school and am always late for first period. My history teacher goes insane every time. I haven't bothered explaining to him about my responsibilities, because I like it to look as though I couldn't give a shit. He always makes a big production about me coming in late, and I kind of enjoy it.

"Ah, Monsieur Boucher graces us with his presence at long last. Applause! Fanfare!" The history teacher is English, from Truro or somewhere, and thinks it's hilarious to call everyone Monsieur this and Mademoiselle that when most of us don't even speak any French. Sometimes when I make my entrance a few of the guys will clap and whistle just to be assholes. It's the only time I ever get any attention. Sometimes I bow.

After school I drive back into Big Harbour to get my mother, which is not so bad because I can hang around the arcade or the mall or somewhere while I wait for it to be five. The irony of this situation is my mother's job. My mother's job is being a housekeeper. She looks after someone else's house and someone else's kids all day while I fry bacon for her alcoholic brother. She works in a big old house, and the kids she looks after are very small and very cute. She loves it. She can't believe her luck, how circumstances came together so perfectly for us - that Isadore would drive into a ditch with his uninsured truck one night and be forced to live with us.

So my life is incredibly boring, driving into town and back. Guys at school think I have it made because I've got a truck, and I get to go into Big Harbour all the time by myself. It is a big joke. It feels like a big joke.

I get up some mornings, my English teacher's lying on the floor. He drinks with Isadore, which is enormously stupid because Isadore has been known to break the limbs of some of the guys he's drunk with. The English teacher doesn't know this, or else he's not concerned. Drunks aren't picky about the company they keep, as long as it's other drunks, people who won't make them feel bad about it. The smell of bacon wakes the English teacher up too, but he bolts to the bathroom instead of going for my plate. He always comes out after about a half hour or so, always smiling, his hair wet and combed back.

"Ah!" he says. "Guy!" Like it's a beautiful day and nothing short of having woken up on my kitchen floor could have made him happier. "How about a lift to school?" So I end up having to chauffeur him around as well. It's a stupid, embarrassing life.

The English teacher has a girl's name - Alison Mason - but he likes to be called Al, for obvious reasons. He is from New York, and everybody says he is a draft dodger and a back-to-the-lander because anyone who would come here from the States always is.

"Are you a draft dodger and a back-to-the-lander?" I ask him one morning when I am pissed off at him for stinking up the truck with his booze fumes and the fact that I am going to have to listen to him talk about Flowers for Algernon all third period and the fact that I've just seen him sprawled across the linoleum.

"Back-to-the-lander I would need you to define," replies Alison Mason. "Draft dodger, yes. I answer without hesitation. It was an unjust war."

"I'd love a war," I tell him.

"You wouldn't, Guy."

"Fuckin Hitler!" I yell.

"Well - that was before my time..."

"Fuckin Commies!"

"Please don't yell," says Alison. "I had moral objections."

Yes, you strike me as an extremely moral person, I'm thinking. I would one day like to have the balls to say all the great things I think.

But Alison Mason didn't get where he is today by being dense. He sees me smirk at him and grins wide, like a guilty kid. It's a weird expression to see on the face of an English teacher, and I don't like it. He thinks now we are friends.

A lot of the girls at school think Alison Mason is incredibly hot. It's just because he's American. I should take a picture of him some morning at our house.

Girls are insane and for the most part I can't stand the thought of them. The ones at my school anyway. The girls in town are better, obviously. Last year I went to a dance at the vocational school in Big Harbour and it was like going to Disneyland. I didn't know anyone there, except the guys I came with. There was one girl who kept looking at me, and I danced with her three times. She kept yelling in my ear, "You're not from around here, are you? You're not from around here, are you?" because I think saying it made her feel sophisticated but it also made me feel pretty cool, because I realized I could've been from anywhere, instead of just out in the sticks, out in Frog-town. That's what she was thinking too. I could've been from New York for all she knew. Since the music was blasting, she probably never noticed my accent. She went to the bathroom with her gaggle of friends and after that I lost track of her.

They say in a year or so our school is going to be shut down, and we'll all be bussed into Big Harbour every day. I wish it would happen now.

Editorial Reviews

“The violent colours of small-town life in Saints of Big Harbour are overlaid with a sheen of weird tenderness and wry humour. Coady takes us to the depths of isolation where her groping characters fight their loneliness with booze, brawls and self-delusion. Compelling and complex, this book is a page-turning delight.” -- Eden Robinson, author of Monkey Beach

“Coady swerves with a hardy veteran’s knowing … the artful details and nuance of Coady’s renderings of the archetypal dilemma confirm that her work is among the most noteworthy in the country.” -- National Post

“Coady has a lively talent, writing with curiosity and warmth about the heartrending tangles of human connection.” -- The Globe and Mail

“It’s a miracle when a book as good as Lynn Coady’s comes along. Saints of Big Harbour is as good as it gets. . . . A masterpiece of comic hysteria . . . bitterly funny . . . the inventive, energetic writing grips you by the neck and hauls you into the world of Big Harbour.” -- The Calgary Herald

“Lynn Coady is a brilliant new voice in Canadian literature.” -- David Adams Richards, author of Mercy Among the Children

“Lynn Coady has created two of the more memorable characters in recent Canadian fiction. . . . Amazing.” -- The Toronto Star

“Lynn Coady is the best young writer in Canada.” -- The Gazette (Montreal)

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