canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Heads You Lose
by Martin S. Cohen
Ekstasis Editions, 2002

Reviewed by Joanne Haskin

There are two reasons to read this book: First of all, Heads You Lose, by Martin S. Cohen is funny all the way through. Second, its mysteries grow and multiply like bacteria on past the last page. Heads You Lose begins as a benign road trip story, but grows pleasantly malignant as the plot progresses. A mental teaser, Cohen's novel begs reflection long after the book has been consumed.

Saul, the novel's narrator, is a wry wit. A rejected husband - after his wife replaced him with the gardener - Saul heads out on a road trip with no particular destination in mind. Tired, glum, indignant, Saul's voice is soaked through with self-pity, but his voice is also an unending source of humour. Saul's hatred toward his ex-wife is healing and malignant at the same time; in this way the novel reads like a letting of pus. Saul expresses his pared-down sentiments when he describes the breakdown of his marriage:

...but the truth, the real, plain, honest truth, is that I was so absolutely enraged at Helene for being such a lying, entirely duplicitous bitch that I just couldn't imagine living under the same roof as her one day longer, much less sleeping with her in the same bed.

On the open road, Saul picks up the boy hitchhiker: a beautiful, silent teenage boy. Eventually, his name will be revealed, but mostly the boy maintains silent. Saul tries to muster companionship with the boy by telling Bible stories. The more Saul tries to open the boy up, the hollower Saul becomes. The boy loves Saul's Bible stories because they are abundant with tales of decapitation. More importantly, Saul and the hitchhiker pulse off with raw attraction. The discourse between Cohen's characters becomes languorous. Cohen describes the boy in erotic tones:

...naked on a stool in the hallway waiting his turn like a naughty schoolboy waiting on a bench in front of the principal's office...

Cohen sustains this fever throughout the novel. The relationship between Saul and the boy becomes a psychotic, chiaroscuro painting, open to endless interpretation. Heads You Lose is an intricate ride through broken relationships, the potential for difference in relationships, and is a telling expression of the power of storytelling.

Joanne Haskin lives in Aurora.







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