His birth certificate records that he was named William Alberto Nunez-Knopf, but when he was ten he read Charlotte’s Web and decided he’d swap William for Wilbur after E.B. White’s Pig, friend to the novel’s arachnid heroine. Since both his mothers called him Wil anyway, it didn’t make much difference. But what Mum and Mup (collectively, ‘The Mumps’) had failed to spot was that the capitals of the name on the certificate spelled W.A.N.K. This did not, however, escape the students of Pierre Elliott Trudeau Junior School, especially when within hours of starting there, Wil’s reputation lay in ruins forever. On Day One, his teacher asked the class to write letters about what they hoped to achieve by the time they graduated from high school. These documents would be securely locked in the school safe (aka ‘the time capsule’) to be opened by their authors six years’ hence. Having been home-schooled with a liberal commitment to Truth, Wil sets out his hopes of becoming less timid, falling in love with a special girl (and maybe one day feeling one of her boobs) and improving his control of Jeremiah (his penis) who at the time had a mind of his own.
En route to the time capsule, the teacher drops just one letter. Of course, it’s Wil’s; and inevitably it’s picked up by Tyler Kertz, Wil’s nemesis for years to come. Next day, every kid in the school has read the letter on numerous social media platforms; Wil’s career as an object of derision has begun. He does have a couple of talents, though. The poetry he writes matters to him and it’s not bad. He also has the gift of making good friends when he meets his kind of person. There’s Sal, his 85 year old neighbour, lonely after the death of his much-loved wife. Then there’s Alex, another newcomer to the school, who becomes a trusted confidant. Alex is gay and the friendship does drift apart somewhat when Alex meets Fabrizio, the love of his life.
The stage is set for the novel’s tipping point. Wil plays the triangle in the school band with cow bell and tambourine on the side, thus qualifying for the band’s exchange with a group from Paris. Wil is allocated ‘Charlie Bourget’ as his exchange partner; he’s desperately anxious that Charlie will like him. But when the French land in Toronto, Charlie turns out to be Charlotte; she is gorgeous and articulate and the Mumps adore her and want to adopt her. Sal and Charlie are instant friends, not least because Sal had honeymooned in Paris and speaks fluent French. Wil is hopelessly, speechlessly smitten. But does he have any chance? Especially with Tyler Kertz around.
Everything plays out from there. Wil’s narrative is always comic in spirit and our sympathy and affection for him never waver. He’s likeable and self-deprecating in the Chicken Licken tradition; the sky is falling and when it does it will undoubtedly fall right on top of him (again). But we never doubt that everything will work out fine for him in the end.
Sal, Alex and Fabrizio get together to coach Wil in readiness for the return visit to Paris. It’s not just about Charlie, they say, it’s about the trip of a lifetime! To Paris! They work on improving his haircut, his physique and his wardrobe, while Wil packs his trusted self-help handbook – Charlotte’s Web. He must remember the watchwords she spun into her web for Wilbur: ‘Some Pig!’, ‘Terrific!’ and ‘Radiant!’ Even the title of Nielsen’s novel is on loan from the same source.
Paris works its magic for Wil as it had for Sal, long ago. By the time he returns to Canada, Wil understands what Sal meant when he said that every life may only be a blip in the great scheme of things, but it’s a Miraculous, Tremendous Blip to be lived to the full.