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

by Malcolm Burgess / 15 September, 2012
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.

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