First-rate debut, published earlier this year to widespread acclaim in Canada, finds a teenager in a small British Columbia town wrestling with the ghosts of his parents’ fame and his late mother’s unhappiness.
Narrator Saul is the 18-year-old son of Ian and Helena St. Pierre, “folkies turned rock balladeers” during the ’70s—until “Leni,” a beautiful Native American deeply conflicted about their celebrity and prosperity, walked away from her infant son, later becoming a missionary in Thailand. As the story begins (in 1998), news of Leni’s recent death coincides with renewed public interest in Ian and Helena: it seems a German rock group, Urethra Franklin, has hit it big with a “cover” of one of their old tunes. While the world (including two gorgeous female admirers) beats a path to Ian’s door, Saul is dealing with his own hormones, high-school student protests organized by his Sikh friend Navi, and the complex ache of never having known his mother (whose ubiquitous recorded voice “was the toothache in my heart”). Saul is an enormously appealing character, a biracial Holden Caulfield whose hatred of phonies extends to himself, in several outrageously funny scenes, and in revealing confrontations with the blissed-out Ian (a memorable study of a well-meaning weakling who’s nevertheless a victim of political correctness run amok). By the time the novel reaches its bittersweet climax at Helena’s funeral, we’ve been introduced to a dozen or more sharply drawn seriocomic characters, taken a magical mystery tour through the suburban worlds of folk and rock music (including the adoring counterculture-vultures who preserve its memories), and heard what must surely be the last word on the subject of student protests (“ ‘I think we really made a point.’/ ‘About what?’/ ‘Exactly.’ ”).
A heart-tugging delight. First novels don’t get any better than this.