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Men and Other Mammals
By Jim Keeble
PB, 290 pgs. US$13/C$20
ISBN: 0-7868-8861-X

A man's life

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 12, 2003

Men and Other MammalsLife is pretty good for Scott Barron, the protagonist in Jim Keeble's debut novel Men and Other Mammals. Scott is dating an attractive woman, has just had his third book of poetry published with strong sales expected and it looks like nothing but blue skies for him. His brother Jes, on the other hand, is a struggling writer with an odd fondness for penguins but is at least happily married. As Scott quickly finds out though, those blue skies can turn ugly at a moment's notice and when things start to go wrong for him he finds out just how bad life can get.

Scott's attractive girlfriend leaves him after only eight months -- just as he unconvincingly tells her he loves her -- and his career looks to be derailed after he drunkenly vomits on-air on a BBC literary program. He hits rock bottom after a devastating family tragedy and an unwelcome face from the past returns to complicate matters even further. If things haven't become bad enough for Scott, his relationship with his brother -- whose own relationship with his wife becomes strained -- begins to deteriorate.

Men and Other Mammals is solidly planted in the Nick Hornby school of novels about men. It is a story of a man who has few solid connections with others -- his friendships with men are superficial and his relationship with his ex-girlfriend was shallow at best -- and who must undergo a trial before he sees truth. Only with the truth will Scott realize what life is really all about. Healthy book sales and pretty girlfriends are all quite good but the most important thing in life is our relationships with those we love.

For men like Scott, who are in their early 30s, single, and who tend to ignore their relationships with other people, Men and Other Mammals may hit a little close to home. Keeble reminds us that in the midst of all the hard work to establish our careers, the enjoyment of personal freedom that success and youth provide us and the self-absorbed navel-gazing we occasionally indulge in, it's the people in our lives that should matter most to us. It's a pity that some of us take our time learning this lesson.

In this excerpt early in the novel, Scott discusses his shattered romantic life with his sister-in-law Samantha:

"Did I go after the wrong things? Did I just make the wrong choices...?"

"We all have to make choices..."

"Or do you only know what the right things are when it's too late?"

I look back at her.

"How do you do it, Sam?"

"Do what?"

"Connection. Commitment."

"That other 'c' word. Choice. A choice you make once, to love that person, to be with them whatever they do, however they behave." She glances beyond, at my brother. "It's a choice you then make again and again, every day. For the rest of your life, I guess." She looks back at me. "Loving someone isn't just about holding hands and kissing in public. Sometimes it's just as had not to having someone to love. Harder maybe..."

For the most part Keeble is sure-footed through his novel. He handles quite well the turmoil Scott goes through as his carefully ordered world begins to collapse on itself. He successfully weaves humour and a touching look at human relationships through his narrative until an unfortunate subplot that sees Scott kidnap a penguin from a zoo in order to make things right with his brother. From there the novel threatens to come apart under the weight of being excessively maudlin and nearly does so until Keeble manages with some effort to right the ship again.

That said, Men and Other Mammals is a first-rate effort from a new young novelist. It's a funny yet touching story about the kind of love that many of us ignore for the more superficial pleasures and distractions in life. Though it is weaker in some parts than others, his take on the issues surrounding romantic relationships is spot on whereas his treatment of conflict could be a little more nuanced, Men and Other Mammals is a winner. Hopefully a few more of us will take the opportunity presented to us that was given to Scott Barron.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy Men and Other Mammals at Amazon.com for only $10.40 (20% off)

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