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By Annette Lapointe

Anvil Press, 232 pages, $20

Dan Brown writes badly. Abandon that blockbuster reprint and open Annette Lapointe. The Saskatoon writer's exceptional first novel should be taught in high schools alongside The Da Vinci Code. Let Lapointe be joined by other new authors who, like her, have a gift as yet unembraced by the big-press promo machines. Let the skill and beauty of their work be placed page-by-page, sentence-by-sentence, against Dan Brown's dross.

People consume trash prose because they don't know better -- or do, but think that an occasional binge of syntactical trans fat won't hurt them. Let them learn, at an impressionable age, where the trans fat is and isn't, and maybe they'll gain a taste for writing that doesn't dull the mind. Maybe they'll read the Annette Lapointes.

Meet Rowan: 26, a loner, "not quite cowboy," living on middle ground somewhere between true Prairie and the straggling suburbs of Saskatoon. Rowan is heading out at dusk on a warmish April night with a load in the back of his pickup. He pulls off-road into "deep pasture, hidden by bush and distance from the road. . . . The smell, once he throws the tarp back, isn't as bad as he expected." The sandy soil accepts his shovel easily.

Rowan is a thief. "Four arrests, two convictions, five years of his life buried in jails around the western provinces." He's still in the biz and thriving. He drives miles from where he's known, hits farmhouses, schools and drug stores at night, and hunting camps in the off season. He does re-sales too: buys beaded moose-hide jackets from remote native reserves, hauls them to Detroit and Chicago, and reaps a tenfold profit.

On the road, Rowan succumbs to a lady's charms now and then, but what's left of his heart stays with Macon, a high school sleepover buddy who slid from teenage oddness into full adult schizophrenia. He and Rowan still snuggle (if they're allowed privacy) in the psych ward. When Macon's demons intrude, as they always do, it's time for Rowan to leave.

Mental illness lived at home, too. From Rowan's earliest childhood, his father sang to horses on their farm. It was considered an endearing quirk, until he insisted that he was singing with them. He began hearing them in the house. One day, because "they wouldn't shut up," he went out to the barn with a knife.

With Rowan's dad hospitalized indefinitely, his mother embarked on relationships first with a crystal-meth manufacturer and then with her brother. Rowan was sent to live with foster parents. When he came home, it was to absorb gradually the reason mum and uncle shared the house. Ten years on, these things still won't let him alone.

The gold on this novel's distressed silver is the adolescent love story. Rowan and Macon's shared secret, volcanic yet slowly embraced, has depths withheld from everyone but the reader. It's made the richer by Lapointe's refusal to soft-focus the sex or place adorably skewed halos on her rebel angels. These boys are devils. The most touching scene of lust and discovery occurs in a school gymnasium, midway through their late-night trashing of the building. High on the power they've seized, they exercise it with some serious rough-housing and end up breathless on the floor. "[Rowan]rolled him down. Sat on him and laughed. . . . Bent and kissed him . . . crotch on Macon's belly, hips holding him down. He went looking for blood in Macon's mouth, stroking the line of his teeth and the slightly ragged insides of his cheeks. Found a faint copper flicker to lick up. Bloody boy mouth under him, so happy, and arms snaking up to wrap around his neck."

The sex that follows is callow, utterly real, beautifully pitched. It moves with the force of what's right and true and must not be elided. Apart from some patches of overwriting and a few plot detours, the rest of the story pretty much follows suit. Lapointe constructs the familiar world, the one inside each of us, in the lives of strangers. It's what fiction does best.

Jim Bartley's first novel, Drina Bridge, will be published this fall.

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