Whatever Russell Smith’s shortcomings as a fiction writer may be, audacity is surely not among them. His 2004 novel Muriella Pent demonstrated this, daring as it does to tread with heavy boots through such minefields as class, WASP cultural pretensions, the absurdities of identity politics, and the general weirdness of Canadian sexual mores. And how many white, male authors today are willing to write from the point of view of both women and visible minorities, not from a historical perspective, but within the context of now, with all of our fractured communication, historical resentments, broken-down ideologies and cultural confusion? Muriella Pent is easily one of the most nervy and relevant Canadian novels of the last twenty years.
His follow-up, last year’s Girl Crazy, only ratchets up the audacity level. While not as structurally or politically ambitious as Muriella Pent, credit Smith with a detailed and unabashed portrayal of male sexuality that holds nothing back. His protagonist, Justin Harrison, a college English teacher, is a healthy, heterosexual man. Everywhere he goes, whatever he’s doing, Justin notices women and enjoys looking at them – at their curves, their legs, their lips, their eyes. He draws judgements on their fashion choices, noting any tantalizing glimpses of bare skin or the shadowy outlines of undergarments, all the while speculating on what lies beneath. At home he peruses porn websites, while at work he surreptitiously observes, evaluates and compares. Critics tended to gloss over this aspect of Justin’s character, conveniently labelling him “obsessed,” “fixated,” or “an adolescent.” Others posed the thorny question, with all of its rather sad implications: are men really like this? The honest answer of course is “yes,” and the better question is why in our hyper-sexed culture such graphic and honest portrayals, portrayals that don’t play for laughs but instead examine all of the attendant implications, are so rare in our literature.
But Smith’s refreshingly candid examination of the male sex drive, albeit a drive that is frustrated and confused, is only one part of Girl Crazy’s audacity. Still more bracing is Justin’s ultimate response to his ordeal as the spurned lover of a sexually provocative and emotionally manipulative woman who is far too young for him, yet also far too knowing. Jenna introduces Justin to a seething underclass of sexually aggressive women, drug deals, pit bulls and desperate men willing to inflict physical harm to protect their interests. At the beginning of the novel, Justin, described by others as “nice” and “a gentleman,” listens patiently to his patronizing ex-girlfriend’s chatter about saving the world. He spends a great deal of time playing video games where he gets to blow things up and shoot people. He’s resigned to earning a living teaching pointless courses in “business communication.” He masturbates quite a bit. And he looks at women, but always furtively. In other words, he’s a fairly typical, nice young man.
By novel’s end, everything has changed. Some readers may dismiss Justin’s transformation as highly improbable, but they would be missing the point. Justin’s choices and actions highlight a very real dilemma for young men everywhere: in a shallow consumer culture whose only real ethos is cut-throat competition, the price of hanging on to noble humanist values and aspirations, not to mention being “nice,” is increasingly high. Especially when one learns, as Justin does, that the institutions entrusted with advancing such values are themselves hopelessly compromised. In the end, Justin decisively exchanges the frustrations of a “typical” life for one that walks on the wild side, complete with gambling, drugs, strippers and guns. And the provocative thing is, given the terms set by Smith, it’s difficult to fault him for it.
— Michael Carbert