canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Insolent Boy
by John Stiles
Insomniac Press, 2001

Reviewed by Matthew Firth

The strength of The Insolent Boy is its characters. John Stiles depicts palpable and diverse characters, whether major or minor. The weakness of this novel is its ambition—to retell the Prodigal Son story over way too broad a timeframe for a novel under 200 pages. In the end, this ambition undermines the characters and renders The Insolent Boy a wee bit of a disappointment, or, more fairly, it is not nearly as fine a novel as it promises to be over the first 100 pages or so.

In the early going, Stiles gives us his protagonist: the misfit orphan Selwyn Davis, abandoned in an apple orchard as an infant and then taken in by a local Anglican minister and his wife in a small town in Nova Scotia. At a young age, Selwyn is coddled by his adopted parents and portrayed as a brat with few redeeming characteristics; he doesn’t want to mix with the other kids and considers himself above his peers. Like many children, he turns to various indulgences as recourse, one being two rabbits that he receives as a gift. A turning point occurs when Selwyn witnesses the rather brutal mating practices of said bunnies. From this experience, he develops his masterstroke defense, and eventual ticket to rock’n’roll semi-stardom: a piercing wail that he emits when confronted by other kids—and later, on stage—mimicking the sound made by the female rabbit when she was mounted from the wrong end. When this characteristic is introduced, Selwyn is more embraceable, as his outcast status is given weight and context.

The outcast status is enhanced when Stiles gives the reader one of many memorable supporting characters: Jerry O’Reardon, one of the few kids that Selwyn bonds with as an adolescent. O’Reardon is a transplanted delinquent from the tough streets of Belfast, wreaking his own brand of havoc in Nova Scotia (e.g., starting fires, killing things). The jerk-off scene with Jerry and Selwyn is hilarious and reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Via O’Reardon, Selwyn’s alienation, quirkiness and self-destructive streak are further developed. Another bond develops when Selwyn finds love in the form of classmate Charlene Lockhart, but the relationship seems doomed when Charlene becomes a teenaged mom, abandoning Selwyn, with her child in tow.

From there, Selwyn sets out on his embarkation, landing in Vancouver, where he literally wakes one day to find himself in tight with a band called the ills. Selwyn is first a roadie; a gig that lasts several years, and then becomes the ills’ lead singer on what turns out to be a disastrous European tour. In the midst of it all, Selwyn drinks too much, pines for his proper place in the cosmos, and is constantly haunted by his estrangement from the minister and the minister’s wife and the simple life left behind in Nova Scotia.

As stated, Stiles’ ambitions weaken this novel. Nearly forty years pass in 67 chapters and 189 pages, across three continents and back to small town Nova Scotia. The book moves at too quick a clip, with some of the leaps in time and place being problematic. As a result, the novel unravels, only to be resolved too quickly.

The precise point where the novel unravels is where Selwyn is transformed from a road-weary rock warrior into a landscape-and portrait-painting artist in Japan. Selwyn flees to Japan following a bludgeoning incident of one of his band mates in the Czech Republic. Shortly after his arrival, he is jailed for his alleged part in the bludgeoning and spends two years in prison, a time that is mostly glossed over by Stiles. Upon his release, Selwyn acquires a patron who endows him with all that he could want: time and resources to develop his painting, a house, and a clichéd, demure Japanese wife. How this comes to fruition exactly—following years of drunken rambling and prison time—is unclear and unconvincing. Selwyn is just suddenly debating Zen Buddhism with his patron, a few years after touring every backwater on the Prairies in a shit-and-blood-stained van, shrieking on cue like a skewered bunny.

In Japan, Stiles obscures Selwyn. The author shines through more brightly than his—to this point—expertly developed central character. As a reader, I was seeing too much Stiles. I just couldn’t recognize Selwyn after the virtually unexplained transformation to a Japanese-speaking, pseudo-mystic artist, which is such a departure from Selwyn the pyromaniac/serial masturbator—and then perpetually-pissed roadie/rock god wannabe—that I felt let down by Stiles.

What is a great story of alienation and longing—with a healthy dose of debauched travelogue thrown in—becomes an over-moralized retelling of an old tale. Stiles has created a memorable character. I only wish he’d resisted the urge to compartmentalize Selwyn Davis, in favour of letting him run free. Had Stiles been less tied to formal resolution with this novel, The Insolent Boy would have stayed true to its title. Stiles’ forced conclusion that we are not certain of who we are and that we are forever shaped by our past is predictable and debilitating, compared to the writer’s skill for taking the reader on a wild ride with truant characters that are deep, recognizable and even likeable.

Matthew Firth’s new book of short stories, Can You Take Me There, Now?, has just been published by Alley Cat Editions, an imprint of Boheme Press.







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.