Beautiful Losers is divided into three books. In book 1, the narrator speaks. In book 2, F. writes to the narrator. Book 3 is “An Epilogue in the Third Person.” Book 2 fills in gaps (though only for the reader) in the narrator’s story; the epilogue shows the speakers of books 2 and 3 as old men. Cohen once remarked of the writing of this novel that he had to “write or die”; the book is a fictional portrait of one very dark time of the author’s soul.
The constipated, oversexed narrator of book 1 speaks from the vantage point of a man who has lost his wife to a freak accident resulting from a possible suicide attempt and who has lost his best friend to a political suicide. The narrator is a folklorist who is studying a tribe of Indians, the A--s, which is nearly extinct.
Edith, the most recently deceased of the A--s, had felt neglected by her husband because of his devotion to his study. She consequently secreted herself at the base of the elevator shaft outside their basement apartment. She might have been safe in her hiding place, as few visited the basement, and she might have won the attention of her scholar-husband had a delivery boy not descended upon her.
Catherine Tekakwitha is the seventeenth century A--upon whom the narrator focuses his study. Her death, like Edith’s, was hastened by her own acts and by an outside power. A convert to Christianity, Catherine rejected her physical nature in spite of the efforts of tribal associates to find her a suitable spouse. As she grew more disassociated from her physical self and more closely wed to the spiritual, she became more and more abusive of her physical body. Toward the end of her life, her self-inflicted torture was so great that others of her tribe forced her to agree to set limits on her homage to her Savior. Catherine did not, however, stop fasting, and she did not stop punishing her outer body; it was found, too late, that she slept each night wrapped in a blanket of thorns. (The end of Catherine’s story is provided by F. in book 2.) The narrator, who continues to seek communion with Edith, Catherine, and F., all of whom he believes to have predeceased him, is lured to F.’s treehouse by a message he finds from F. in the bottom of a bag of fireworks.
F., like Catherine Tekakwitha, is thought by the narrator to have sacrificed himself to his beliefs. F. had last left the narrator’s side telling him that he was going to blow himself up during Queen Elizabeth’s visit in protest of Canada’s affiliation with Great Britain. The letter reveals that F. lost only a thumb and not his life to the explosion. F. admits in his letter that he has never been perfectly honest with the narrator. Book 1 shows the narrator’s feeling of being the lesser partner in the friendship. Book 2 shows that F. had nurtured the feelings of humility in the narrator because he considered humility a strength, and he thought the narrator the potentially stronger man of the two.
As he had directed the narrator to his study of Catherine and her tribe, F. reveals to his “darling” (the narrator) that he had created the Edith whom the narrator found so beautiful. F., always associated in the narrator’s mind with soap and the perfect body, had, with his medicated products and direction, made Edith the beautiful woman whose face and body the narrator adored. In his tutelage of the narrator, F....
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now admits, he had held back information because he wanted the narrator, through his pain (the narrator suffers tortures of body and soul), to become the good man that F. feared that he himself could never be.
F. writes his letter from a hospital for the criminally insane. Much of the letter is written with one hand while the other does the physical bidding of nurse Mary Voolnd. Once satisfied, Mary tells F. that it is time for their escape. Mary dies in the attempted escape, but F. appears, free, as the second old man of the epilogue.
In the epilogue, a bearded old man descends from his treehouse. He is still constipated but no longer hopeful that this problem will be resolved. He is still, however, in search of sexual gratification; he is shown in pursuit of young boys. Another bearded old man missing a thumb is likewise shown in pursuit of sexual gratification, also with young boys. (The narrator and F. had begun their physical and spiritual relationship as young boys in a Catholic orphanage.)