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I & I 

George Elliott Clarke (Goose Lane)

At first glance, George Elliott Clarke's prose novel I & I seems to follow a familiar formula. Boy meets girl, girl's family doesn't approve, boy and girl run away, and after a seemingly accidental violent incident, both go on the run. And as the tragic romance of rich, white Betty Browning and the black boxer Malcolm Miles unfolds, Clarke indeed makes the requisite nods to Romeo and Juliet and Bonnie and Clyde. But in a novel jam-packed with cultural and literary allusions, these references swirl by in a maelstrom of blood, booze, sex and food. Even Clarke's version of 1970s Halifax feels deliriously alien; north end gangs dig up corpses in order to bury them properly while "brass knuckle pimps" and other lowlifes rule the streets. Clarke lets the story unfurl with his trademark gusto, lingering over scenes of beauty and gore with the lip-smacking verve of a bawdy Wilfred Owen. Strangely, though, it's his rendering of the book's biggest villain, the libidinous bible college professor Lowell, that rings the most sharply. When Lowell meets his inevitable end---with his gaping mouth "hot and raunchy/Inside, an adult, genital pink"---it comes across as the most obscene act in a story filled with vile characters and dirty deeds.

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