canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


by Brian Francis
ECW Press, 2004

Reviewed by Anne Borden

"It doesn't really bother me that I don't have a boy friend. But I think it bothers everyone else, especially my parents. Sometimes, while we're watching Love Boat on Saturday nights, I'll catch my mother looking over at me, like she's trying to figure out a crossword puzzle."

Brian Francis' first novel introduces us to Sarnia Observer delivery boy Peter Paddington, who survives grade eight (and the onset of gay puberty) with the help of his stoic wit and phenomenal imagination. Peter's accounts of the daily events at school and home are at once gripping and hysterically funny, especially if you’re among those of us who spent your adolescent Saturday nights with Mom, Captain Steubing and crew.

What sets Francis' book apart from so many other coming out novels is that he taps so deeply into early adolescent sexuality and the secrets that young people labor to keep from their families and even themselves. So much of Peter’s adolescence is about controlling his responses: to the bullies who want to make him cry; to his parents’ unrelenting dorkiness; to the urges of a rapidly changing body. Peter agonizes, for example, over what he calls his "bedtime movies" - those falling asleep fantasies that follow bedtime stories and precede masturbation – because they have been featuring more boys than girls these days. But he never stops having them.

When it comes to his own body, Peter is almost grimly self-effacing: "There are a lot of things about me that need fixing. For starters, I'm big-boned, which is a nice way of saying 'all my pants have elasticized waistbands.'" On his thirteenth birthday, Peter passionately resolves to get a tan, lose weight and "get normal nipples". The thing is, they already are normal, as are the plots of his "bedtime movies" - it’s his view that’s been distorted, and one suspects that Peter is on the cusp of this discovery.

In many ways, Peter is the Sarnia Observer, protecting himself by remaining outside of the social fray at school … the kind of kid who grows up to be a writer. He spends his recess as the librarian's assistant, analyzing, through the window, the social hierarchy of Clarkdale Elementary School. He instinctually distances himself from the boys in the "athlete" group, the "short" group, the "geek" group, the "Indian" group and the "banger" group," and knowingly avoids those kids who "don’t fit into any group" (e.g., Arlene Marple "who has dandruff and B.O. and wears sweatshirts with kittens on them."). Like many gay teens, Peter struggles to balance his desires (e.g, learn the art of cooking by taking Home Ec. class) with his pragmatic self-protectiveness (e.g., keep from getting called a "girl" and shoved into a locker by Brian Cinder), which leads to unjust compromises.

Peter’s significant social connections are not at Clarkdale, but with a handful of neighbors and his immediate family (again in this way, he’s really more normal than he realizes). His biggest worry is not that he doesn’t have school friends but rather that he’s let his parents down by not having school friends. Likewise, the worst betrayal Peter experiences isn’t at Clarkdale, it is by his older sister Christine, who refuses to leave her post as a People’s Jewelry saleswoman to help him fend off an "athlete" group bully at the mall (from behind the counter "she mouthed two words to me: ‘Go. away.’")

The book’s thrilling dénouement, involving an Olivia Newton John album that was a birthday gift from a bachelor uncle, would be a great place for Francis to draw the story to a close. Unfortunately, the strengths of the book are then somewhat dashed by an abrupt shift in the narrative to "boy loses weight, boy accepts himself". Peter’s birthday moment, after all, seems to be his biggest revelation on the way towards coming out, that everyone has a secret to hide; and that the moment he can own his secrets will be the beginning of Xanadu.

Anne Borden lives in Toronto, where she works as a writer and editor.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.