Greg Rhyno’s debut novel, which takes place in the mid-1990s and 10 years later, amounts to a painfully effective exercise in nostalgia. In keeping with a cassette-tape theme, the timelines are dubbed Side A and Side B, and from each side, Rhyno all but bombards the reader with nostalgic tidbits: Sloan, the phone book, Golden Girls, dewberry soap from The Body Shop. There’s some fragment of lost youth on practically every page.
I happen to be an ideal target for the particular nostalgic sucker punch this book delivers; I checked, and sure enough, Rhyno was born the same year as I was. Clearly, so was Pete who, as I did, in the novel spends his last year of high school playing drums, heading out in his parka most evenings to see indie bands and longing to escape his hometown forever. Unlike me, however, Pete grows up in Thunder Bay, where he’s actually serious about music. And unlike me (thank the lord), Pete ends up, 10 years later, living his teen-self’s nightmare: He’s a history teacher at his old high school, his musical career downgraded to occasional local shows with a cover band. This, while his high school bandmate and ex-best friend, Jesse, has become the biggest rock star in Canada.
Of course, Jesse returns to town, and past and present collide, giving way to an unexpected future—but plot’s not the true joy of this read. Though Rhyno executes an intricate comedy of errors explaining Jesse’s success, the several big reveals all announce themselves like vanilla perfume on a riot grrrl (the reader picks up the scent; somehow, Pete doesn’t). No, the point is in the details, and in the zeitgeisty archetypes that populate Pete’s life.
Having only a decade between timelines means Side B shows not the other side of youth, but a continuation of youth, in a culture that prolongs adolescence beyond its best-before. Illustrating this point, romance keeps blurring across the student–teacher divide in ways that Rhyno manages to keep just this (or that) side of creepy. Pete needs to escape the trap of high school in Thunder Bay—and then he needs to escape the trap of high school in Thunder Bay again. History (as Pete’s own history teacher keeps repeating) repeats itself, only with different technologies and different band T-shirts. At 18, Pete’s a kid with big dreams; at 28, Pete, or Mr. Curtis as he’s now known, is a man-child. He shows faint signs of impending adulthood, but man-child in his 30s seems a likely next act.
Still, by the story’s end, a character dismisses Jesse as a washed-up sellout, others discuss a newfangled web-thing called Facebook, and we understand that another era is about to begin. Damn, eras don’t last long these days, do they.
—Naomi K. Lewis is a fiction and non-fiction writer in Calgary.