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review: fiction

One could open a review of Lynn Coady's new novel, this week long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, by saying it's about a hockey enforcer. Certainly her protagonist, given the recent deaths of three real-world hockey "hit men," arrives with a macabre, if accidental, timeliness. But The Antagonist is a full-bodied work of fiction, and to say it's about an enforcer is like saying The Catcher in the Rye is about a prep-school student – true, but absurdly reductive, especially since this is a novel that is all about how it feels to be categorized, dismissed, reduced by the very people who should know you best.

Rank, as the protagonist is known, has the unsettling experience of coming across himself as a character in a novel written by a former university pal he hasn't seen in 20 years. Outraged, Rank sits down at the computer and starts firing off e-mails. "You have taken something that was mine," he says in his opening salvo, "and made it yours."

Coady adopts this epistolary form with a knowing wink, making no attempt to write in textese (thank God), and only one brief, funny, reference to emoticons. The salient point about e-mail, for her purposes, is that it's ideally suited to the long-running rant. Epistolary novels often have varying points of view; rants never. Rank is going to tell his own story, and Dude, as one of Coady's characters might say, does he tell it.

In prose that is by turns angry, funny, tender and sad, he tells us what it was like to grow up as a boy who is continually mistaken, owing to his huge size, for a man, and one tough bastard at that. Cast by his father as the bouncer at his struggling ice-cream franchise, he delivers a skull-cracking blow that seriously disables a local miscreant. A term in juvenile corrections follows, and with it an even more tragic event that darkens Rank's life for years to come.

One quickly notices that Rank is a suspiciously well-read jock. For example, there are many references to T.S. Eliot's Prufrock, another character who "knows the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase." It turns out Rank eventually becomes a teacher, and sports fans may be disappointed to find very little hockey in these pages. What little there is has a moving payoff, however, when Rank rises to a heroic act of defiance for which he gives himself no credit whatsoever.

There is also a curious placelessness about the book. There are few references to the weather or season, and even fewer to actual towns or cities. There's an offhand mention of Hamilton, but it isn't deployed as a setting. Everything in this book unfolds in the head of its narrator. He's bashing away at the keyboard – sometimes first thing in the morning, sometimes at 3 a.m., haranguing his treacherous old friend or his recently rediscovered girlfriend – and setting the novel inside his hermetically sealed skull seems entirely appropriate. What is vivid to Rank is made vivid to us, and Rank is not thinking about weather.

Most vivid of all are the characters. Rank's father is a nasty bundle of nerves, a master of passive aggression and a dab hand with the vulgar putdown. At various times, Rank collides with a smart, caring social worker, a drug-addled conspiracy theorist and an evangelical Christian who manages to be both motherly and sinister at the same time. Best of all are "da guys." In Rank's college buddies, Coady captures all the faux expertise, the grudging affection, the boozy solemnity and the logorrhea of one-upping, over-the-top insults to which the college age (okay, and older) male is prone. If you doubt that any female author could do justice to this thoroughly masculine mode of exchange, just check out their stoned – and hilarious – debate on Heraclitus.

Coady's previous books have received much praise and it's easy to see why, given all the gifts of storytelling on display here. The Antagonist is a fine novel about a crucial aspect of growing up: learning to resist the roles that others thrust upon us. Failure to do so can only result in waking up one day to find that, instead of protagonist, we have become the antagonists in our own life stories, continually behaving in ways that fill us with shame. As Rank takes control of the narrative, his outrage dies down, his understanding grows and something approaching inner peace becomes possible.

Giles Blunt is the author, most recently, of Breaking Lorca and Crime Machine.