Every Underdog Has His Day


From The Observer (March 5, 2000)

by Harriet Lane

DOUGLAS COUPLAND writes about people who don't fit in. His slackers and Net nerds are sparky misfits in convenience America, always in search of something, though they may not know exactly what it is. In Miss Wyoming, his weirdest and most wonderful book so far, he builds his story around two characters who have achieved some degree of dubious celebrity, but find that this falls well short of ensuring happiness.

Coupland's gift is to make you care about people who, in other people's novels, would be incidental Aunt Sallys, people to blame or ridicule. After all, his heroine, Susan Colegate, is an ex-beauty queen who, at 28, is now just another washed-up soap star, while his hero, John Johnson, is a 'semi-sleazebag movie producer' with a bad drugs habit. Not the obvious candidates to topline a touching, oddball love story.

But Coupland, who looks for the good in them, makes Susan and John real. Because of that, you warm to them and their desperate quest to find 'something moral and fine' in each other. And then, because Coupland is a benevolent, sentimental sort of writer who yearns for happy endings, he gives Susan and John one of their own.

It's a kindly, old-fashioned approach to fiction, kept as fizzy and reviving as Alka-Seltzer because of Coupland's facility with language. He has the ability to shake brilliance from the everyday. As John shakes Susan's hand, he notes the coolness of her palms, 'like a salve on a burn he didn't even know he had'. The scattered debris from a plane crash resembles 'plaza sculptures at the feet of Manhattan bank towers'. The jokes are good too. When two cars lock bumpers, an onlooker mumbles: 'Oh wow two gay Chryslers fucking.'

Apart from the very end, which culminates in strained coincidence and soap-opera catharsis in a gas-station forecourt, there are few false notes. No small achievement, considering the novel hopscotches through first, the junior beauty-pageant business, second, the movie industry and third, the Arizona hobo trail.

Susan and John's surnames hint at the sweet-smelling, white-toothed cosmetic preoccupations of the US, but their stories are less shiny, less happy than that. Susan spends her adult existence on the run from the mother who made her childhood so unbearable; John finds that methamphetamine, bondage and a pathological detachment do not, after all, make for a fulfilling life.

The novel opens with their first meeting in some chi-chi Beverly Hills eaterie and then doubles back, showing us the Venn diagram of their personal histories. (Both of them, for instance, have already ducked experimentally, and pretty much successfully, out of their lives after near-death experiences.) It's a choppy, ambitious structure for the novel, but it works.

The supporting cast, most notably a crabby hermit who makes sculptures out of household trash and a video-store clerk with a Susan Colegate obsession, is quirky, but always believable. Coupland knows how far you can stretch things and he never goes too far, just far enough.

OK, so I'm his most ardent fan, but I hope it works for you, too.

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