It’s safe to say that those of us lucky enough to have stumbled across Richard Van Camp’s debut novel during its small 2004 U.S. release haven’t forgotten it. Why did we pick it
up? Maybe it was Sherman Alexie, who offered one of those rare
blurbs that sums up the book better than any review: “First Na-
tion noir madness this book is, I love it, and I’m sorta scared of
it, too. Van Camp writes like a dream (or a nightmare).”
A new, twentieth-anniversary edition celebrates the book’s
original Canadian publication, highly suitable given the story’s
palpable setting of the fictional town of Fort Simmer. It’s a fit-
ting name: teenager Larry Sole, like Van Camp, is part of the
Dogrib Nation, one of Canada’s original peoples—some kids
just call Larry “Dogrib”—and tensions simmer because
of it. “I’m Indian,” says Larry, “and I gotta watch it.”
What simmers hottest in Van Camp’s book are the
universal struggles: Larry’s blunderings toward sex, dive
into sniffing gas and hot-knifing hash, and beat-downs
by bullies who, an hour later, may be confidants.
Two catalysts present themselves: the return of Larry’s
wayfaring father, possibly for good, and the arrival of
Johnny Beck, a brash student who leads Larry on an
odyssey of getting laid and raising hell.
That, more or less, is the plot. Few YA books,
though, are so inadequately served by a simple
synopsis. As Alexie said, the book is madness—a
thing to fear and a thing to love. The first lines
set the tone: “I remember. It is the summer of
my crucifixion. I try so hard be pure; I take two
baths a day.” The pace is frenetic, yet unexpect-
edly sad, chopped into photo-flash bits with titles like “Jesus Is a
Gentle Place and Asses Are for Biting.” Huge moments happen
abruptly, as if vital connective tissue has been cut. Sentences
are followed by other sentences that contradict the first. And
straightforward, everyday scenes, without notice, mushroom
into prose that borders on nonsensical:
“With the quiet bleeding labour of shellfish in our lockers. The
sweet rotting flesh of our feet. The fluorescent lights making me
weakdizzydemented. The crab cream two desks over. The gum
under my desk. The spits on the floor. The silverfish. The crunch
under my runners. The bleeding badge of the sun.”
Here’s the surprise: the book is a delight. Larry’s slowly uncov-
ered trauma, though massively disturbing, is realistically packed
with Larry’s hilarious and sexually explicit commentary. He’s a
can’t-sit-still, blabbermouth cutup who calls himself, ridiculous-
ly, “Big Daddy Love,” and his natural defense mechanism is lewd
wordplay: “Bannock and lard make you hard!” he cries, while
praising “magnormous breasts” and enthusing about “doggy-
style” every chance he gets. This magical noise is scored by Lar-
ry’s beloved heavy metal—poets, we come to think of them, by
the names of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and AC/DC.
It is the rare debut that manages to turn author inexperience to an advantage. A new author’s note reveals
that Van Camp worked on the novel from ages 19 to
24, and it’s difficult to imagine an older, ostensibly
better author writing with such dangerous, reckless
velocity. Every page feels like Van Camp is sprinting
naked into a dark forest, an activity so dangerous no
one but a young adult would try it.
Canadians embraced the book like Americans didn’t;
we can thank them for its reemergence. (A 2012
movie version starring Benjamin Bratt certainly
didn’t hurt.) The anniversary edition includes
two short stories featuring the book’s characters,
one of them, written on the occasion of the
movie, that proves Van Camp can still find Larry’s
bloody, boiling vein.
Modern readers might find The Lesser Blessed
resembles nothing so much as another tragedy-laden coming-of-
age book, John Green’s Looking for Alaska (2005), right down to
sharing the same weak point: an implausibly dreamy, beautiful,
and tragic girl. Though it’s worth noting that The Lesser Blessed
predates Looking for Alaska by nine years, the biggest differ-
ence, of course, is that there is little comfort to be found in Van
Camp’s book. Its halcyon moments are cigarette scorched, and it
has teeth—lots of them. The Lesser Blessed stood apart in 1996,
and there has yet to be anything like it.
Another Look At: Richard Van Camp’s
The Lesser Blessed
Twenty years after its publication, still not enough people have read—or even heard
of—Van Camp’s dizzying debut.
BY DANIEL KRAUS
The Lesser Blessed.
By Richard Van Camp.
2016. 128p. Douglas &
McIntyre, paper, $16.95
(9781771621137). Gr. 9–12.