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Title
Knucklehead
Author
Matt Lennox
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
HarperCollins
Pages
368
Price
$22.99

On first glance, Ashley Rosco, the main character of Matt Lennox's impressive new novel Knucklehead, seems a prime example of musclehead clichés. Trapped in the small Ontario town where he grew up, Ash works as a bouncer at the Balmoral, "the only real nightclub in Altena," while working on his physique. Following a disappointing finish at a recent regional bodybuilding championship, he's hoping to qualify for provincials at an upcoming show, bulking up with d-bol tablets along with "milk thistle supplements, for my liver, and … Nolvadex, to keep away the tits." In his spare time, he lends his imposing physique to his old friend Darren, a small-time drug dealer, to keep his erstwhile clients and business associates in line. As one might expect, though, there is more to Ash than meets the eye. Knucklehead is a stirring character study masquerading as a mystery. When Ash's cousin Chastity disappears, he initially blames himself. She had reached out to him and he dismissed her with a casual cruelty that came as a result of a lifetime of mixed messages and frustration: he had long uncomfortably pined for his cousin, even after she became involved with Darren. The near-simultaneous return of Darren's brutal criminal father DB to town and Darren's new involvement with – and use of – crank, however, makes Ash suspicious and he lumbers into a netherworld where his oldest friends and his deepest alliances are cast in a harsh new light, and where his staunch, unquestioning loyalty might just get him killed.

While the mystery propels the central narrative of Knucklehead forward, and will absorb the reader, it serves, in many respects, as a pretext to the real meat of the story. Knucklehead serves as an exploration of contemporary manhood, both internalized and external.

Ash's fixation on his body – the novel is threaded through with a detailed accounting of his fluctuating weight and muscle mass, and his regular check-ins are punctuated with Ash slapping himself in the face, cursing his weakness – initially seems shallow and narcissistic, but as the novel unfolds we see the roots of this fixation. As a teenager, Ash needed an almost imaginable strength to weather the scandal that surrounds his parents and that internal fortitude quickly became physicalized. That prized physique, once a fortress, has turned into a prison for Ash, limiting him in the eyes of the world, closing him off from possibilities, turning his focus inward.

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Knucklehead is, in part, about the breaking down of those walls of flesh and muscle. At times, literally.

Key to the novel's thematic success is the relationship between the two central male characters – Ash and Darren – and their respective fathers.

Lennox excels at delineating the relationships between other family members (the long estrangement between Ash's father and his sister, Chastity's mother), between co-workers and acquaintances, the subdued bitterness of small-town culture and the uneasy presence of the Amigos, the Mexican migrants who work on the farms in the surrounding towns. All of these relationships will come into play over the course of the novel.

Knucklehead unfolds with a measured pace, deliberate, with a slowly encroaching sense of dread and desperation leading to a resolution which is both surprising and, in some ways, inevitable.

Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published later this year.

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