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Putz of the Century

When I was a teenager, Kevin Spacey enthralled me, as did Bill Murray and Paul Giamatti; to this day I am drawn to pock-faced actors cast as ineffectual mid-life losers. Literature abounds with similarly uninspired narrators, which makes me wonder why loser narrators are so popular.Why do we buy these books when writing guides tell us no one wants to read about losers? 

What is a loser? It’s a surprisingly thorny question. Can losers like themselves? Are they self-aware? Are they outcasts? Bridget Jones is a loser. So is Ignatius J. Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces and Harvey Pekar, the disgruntled everyman of American Splendor. There’s even a whole genre of graphic novel devoted to losers. The most recent loser of the bunch is Irving Rosen, the main character of Jon Tucker’s Putz of the Century. But Tucker isn’t the only local writer examining losers. You Comma Idiot and Spat the Dummy were both shortlisted for the QWF Literary Awards.

According to the ol’ Canadian Oxford Dictionary, a loser is “a person or thing that loses or has lost (esp. a contest or game); a person who regularly fails; a socially awkward person; a misfit.” (Not to be confused with a nerd, the sort of person who looks up the definition of a loser before writing a thought piece on the subject).Voice-overs and isolated scraps of text seeped into my head as I considered the figure of the loser.“I’ve been on this planet for 40 years and I’m no closer to understanding a single thing” (Adaptation). “Both my
wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser” (American Beauty). “It’s brilliant, being depressed; you can behave as badly as you like.” (High Fidelity).“But what am I going to do with my life?” Bridget Jones muses. “I know. Will eat some cheese.”

Perhaps there is something instructive in losers – my own obsession with pathetic middle-aged men was fuelled by a desperate fear of their lackluster fates – or perhaps we like feeling superior to them.There’s more than that though; there’s an unspoken connection. We’ve all gone through emotional rough patches, publicly embarrassed ourselves, sat sobbing in corners caressing alarmed pets.We’ve all clawed our way back into respectability (or most of us have), and we’re all loathe to find we’ve again tucked our skirts into our tights, snorted chocolate milk through our noses, betrayed some unforgivable cultural ignorance at dinner, or sneaked into solvency only to find the debt collectors back at our doors.We see in losers the broken fragments of our (ideally) former selves, the third-grade outcast matching an electric blue T-shirt with pumpkin orange shorts, the pitiful self-justifying of a drug addict, the crippling failure to keep up with the Joneses.

Losers are a refreshing “fuck you” to the Joneses.We love Lester Burnham because he tells the Joneses exactly what he thinks of them.We are relieved to read Bridget Jones’ compulsive weight monitoring and cigarette counting, which so mirrors our own.Their stories are often painfully mundane: a briefcase flying open on the way to work, a bad blind date, the reorganization of an unwieldy record collection. Losers are more relatable than hermaphrodites in small-town Labrador, teenage girls torn between the affection of werewolves and vampires, or children on boats with live tigers floating across the Atlantic.

Some writing guides advise emerging writers to avoid losers because they are hard to write well and most losers come off as interminably boring. There are only so many brooding protagonists nursing café au laits in poorly lit coffee shops feeling sorry for themselves that a workshop leader can take. It’s not that losers are unworthy subjects – on the contrary, they may be among the most worthy – they are just that much harder to pull off.

“Ordinary life is pretty complex,” Harvey Pekar said. Every so often a book succeeds in animating an unacknowledged life and transforms an ostensible loser into a figure worthy of consideration. It’s a daunting task, but when a writer succeeds in making a humble life noble and beautiful and awe-inspiring and, more often than not, funny – well, that is more addictive than heroin to our insecure little souls.

Jon Tucker’s brand of loser is the ne’er-do- well rogue who survives by his wits and lives on the brink of bankruptcy; the sort who wouldn’t give a shit if he was called a loser. Over-the-top, fresh-out-of-jail Montrealer, he is Irving Rosen.

The novel reads like a manuscript and needs an editor to tighten up the prose, but that’s partially forgivable given what most first novels are: hopeful children venturing out on their first two-wheelers.Tucker’s not ready to take off the training wheels – and this is a self- published book – but with some honing, his feel for the outrageous could get interesting. Irving Rosen is so far out there as to be barely believable and that’s part of the charm of Putz of the Century. mRb

Sarah Fletcher is a writer in Montreal.

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