Can I tell you what surprised me most about this book? Because months and months after I read it (I know, I’m sorry, I’m late with everything these days) the shock is still with me. What Boys Like isn’t funny. Well, okay, it isn’t primarily funny. There are bits in these stories that are meant to be funny, especially little bits of dialogue, which Jones has a wicked gift for, and those bits are funny, but these stories show a considerable range in terms of tone and emotional direction, just as you’d expect from a Metcalf-Rooke award winning collection. The reason this surprised me is because my primary experience of Amy’s writing is her blog, which is basically the funniest thing ever. I—honest to God—got the sense that she was first and foremost a humourist (and the one reading I went to, where I totally chickened out and went slack-jawed when it came time to meet her, she was clever and charismatic in a way that was mostly humourous), rather than a writer in the Munrovian tradition, and so that was what I was expecting.
Which is not to say that I was disappointed by What Boys Like, because I was not at all. In point of fact, “A Good Girl,” the story that opens the collection, hit home for me in quite a serious way. Leah, the titular “good girl,” is exactly the sort of woman I tend to fall in love with, and seeing how horrible she was to Alex, and how Alex, who didn’t really deserve to be treated so badly, also didn’t really deserve to be treated a whole hell of a lot better, sent me into a fair bit of personal turmoil.
“Twelve Weeks” was a great exploration of loss and how parents and children fit together. It was another one of those stories where I found myself in a complete state of turmoil because it resonated so strongly with experiences from my own life, and I have no doubt that there will be a lot of readers out there—particularly from my age group—who will read this story and find in it a serious and sensitive treatment of their own circumstances.
The only story in What Boys Like that I didn’t really care for was “Miriam Beachwalker.” It was very well executed, but it was still a young-girl-from-the-Maritimes-looking-for-a-way-out story, and that’s generally the sort of thing I try to stay as far away from as possible. It’s good for what it is, but every other piece in the book was more original and inventive, and for that reason I think I found this story even less interesting than I would have if the whole book had been closer to “Miriam” in tone.
Jones, as I said, writes astonishingly convincing dialogue, and she is especially adept at capturing characters in their teens and early twenties (even when she reaches back to the death of Kurt Cobain). She also handles her characters’ sexuality beautifully, in a way that’s frank and inclusive and even at times pretty goddamn hot, but it’s pitch-perfect, and is always in service to the story, never just to shock.
What Boys Like was my sixth selection for the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge.