Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May and We the Animals by Justin Torres – review

by Malcolm Burgess / 15 September, 2012

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

Yet, for all the novel’s faults, May – like some alchemist of adolescence – nonetheless conjures from a quagmire of cliché a compelling character-driven tale worth the read, says Malcolm Burgess.
Life! Death! Prizes! book coverTo Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye, everything was “phoney”, but for Billy, the 19-year-old narrator of Stephen May’s LIFE! DEATH! PRIZES! (Bloomsbury, $36.99), it’s all “A-star”, a catch-all superlative so grating it’s believable. However, the shocking tabloid-style death of Billy’s sullied saint of a mum shatters his gap year serenity, thrusting him into the path of a deadbeat dad and PTA predators bent on undermining his admittedly suboptimal attempts to play de facto parent to an impressionable six-year-old brother. With its cast of crass yet credible caricatures, suspect linguistic innovations (“trauma porn”, anyone?), Life! Death! Prizes! seems more the bastard child of Martin Amis, Nick Hornby or Tom Sharpe than son of Salinger. Yet, for all the novel’s faults, May – like some alchemist of adolescence – nonetheless conjures from a quagmire of cliché a compelling character-driven tale worth the read.

Justin Torres’s WE THE ANIMALS (Granta, $28.99) is a short, sharp, violent gem of a novel, composed of visceral vignettes of raw youthful hurt and joy, animal impulse and neglect. It is the impressionistic journey of three practically feral progeny of a jobbing Puerto Rican ne’er-do-well and a put-upon working-class mother, told from the viewpoint of the youngest and most sensitive. A box of Polaroids, too painful to behold, it is full of those moments when the warmth of familial love turns toxic, and raw emotion, knowing no bounds, presses suffocatingly against the weakest point it can find. A narrative necklace of darkest obsidian, blood red ruby and raspy bone, We the Animals is about sons desperately trying to fathom a random, cruel, yet occasionally joyous world through the dark lens of elders whose only skill is to hold on for all they’re worth to the fleeting now, no matter how they may scar it.

Malcolm Burgess is a Wellington writer and reviewer.

Latest

The last straw: Can anything end our love affair with plastic?
92498 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Environment

The last straw: Can anything end our love affair w…

by Charlotte Graham-McLay

Wellington is making moves to become NZ’s first straw-free city and the govt is considering phasing out plastic bags. But can such bans really work?

Read more
Sunshine is important for both mental and physical health – here's why
92634 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Health

Sunshine is important for both mental and physical…

by Ruth Nichol

Exposure to sunshine at this time of year not only lifts our mood but also strengthens our bones.

Read more
Why chef and restaurateur Sid Sahrawat is king of the Auckland restaurant scene
92566 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Why chef and restaurateur Sid Sahrawat is king of …

by Leisha Jones

To watch Sid Sahrawat at work at his fine-dining restaurant, Sidart, is to witness an artist in action.

Read more
1947 eatery restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018
92182 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

1947 eatery restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018

by Metro

A review of Metro Top 50 2018 restaurant 1947 eatery.

Read more
Amano Britomart restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018
92232 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Amano Britomart restaurant review: Metro Top 50 20…

by Metro

A review of Metro Top 50 2018 restaurant Amano.

Read more
Apero restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018
92396 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Apero restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018

by Metro

A review of Metro Top 50 2018 restaurant Apéro.

Read more
Augustus Bistro restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018
92401 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Augustus Bistro restaurant review: Metro Top 50 20…

by Metro

A review of Metro Top 50 2018 restaurant Augustus Bistro.

Read more
Azabu restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018
92422 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Azabu restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018

by Metro

A review of Metro Top 50 2018 restaurant Azabu.

Read more