Boys of Life - Paul Russell
This is one of the most difficult books I've had to review, and I'm not entirely sure why that is.
I certainly enjoyed it-I haven't been able to put it down and have almost absorbed it rather than read it I was that keen to get to the end.
And that's possibly what it is-this book depends on you getting to the end for its full impact, which makes it very hard to review. I don't want to spoil it for you, but it's hard to convince you just how good it is without that. I'll try.
By the author of The Coming Storm, this novel seems to be about nothing, but it's about everything. Told entirely in the first person narrative of sixteen-year-old Tony Blair (lol), we only see the events of this book unfold through the filter of his perception-and that is startlingly narrow and disturbingly broad at the same time. He doesn't see what is there (which we can, one step away from events and adults) but he sees things we can't--because he's experiencing it raw and we're just reading it. I read a remarkable book recently The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time , which is told entirely from the point of view of a teenager with Asperser's Syndrome (the very bright end of the autism spectrum), and this book, Boys of Life, reminded me of that.
Tony sees so much, but he cannot hope to really get to the core of the horror in this novel, as the horror is actually happening to him. It's not travelling into the heart of darkness; it's waking up to find you're already there, and it's just fine…. However, Tony is actually relating these events - writing them down - as a cathartic exercise as a slightly more mature twenty-something. He adds this layer of perception onto that of his sixteen-year old self. So, we flick between Tony as a "child" experiencing the horror first hand, to Tony as a young man recalling and trying to make sense of it all. Lastly, we have some independent witnesses--newspaper reviews and articles, which sometimes give a remarkably different third perspective.
It's a fascinating jigsaw that you have to piece together bit by bit until the whole picture emerges. Then - and this is where the book really grabbed me - you're left entirely to make up your own mind what you really see in that finished picture. Is it horror? Is it just life portrayed by a brave man? For the whole book tells of Tony's involvement with a movie producer/director Carlos. So, into the melting pot of memory and perception, you throw art and the definition of that. Carlos is hailed as a genius of avant guard cinema. But it's rather like deciding to write a history of war: do you portray the great and noble strategies and victories, or do you write about the grime and the squalor and the individual horror that went into making those great moments of history?
Was Carlos making revolutionary movies, or was he a monster?
Graphic, disturbing gay sex throughout. Writing that makes you weep with its stark simplicity. A novel that leaves you questioning your beliefs and your place in the world-what side you should be on. This is one you'll want to buy and keep and read again and again.
I've just finished reading, and to be honest, I still don't know what to make of the book. A coming of age story with a difference and a few twists, this is not an easy read. Stop here if homoerotic sadomasochism squicks you because this novel isn't for you.
First off, let me say that for a UK reader the idea of having a main character in a gay novel called Tony Blair is just too funny.
It takes the form of a prison confessional, so the story unfolds predominantly in flashback. Tony writes about events that began 10 years before when he was 16, with an authentic and affecting voice that draws you to his story. We know how his personal journey ends. The book tells us how he got there. Or one version, for it's soon clear that Tony by his own admission isn't always a reliable narrator. Memories spark off further recollections in a complex trail that began when Carlos Reichart, 40 year old avant garde film director, enters his life.
They meet in a laundromat, and before the night is out Tony belongs to Carlos, with the passionate intensity of first love. Tony is a bored and disaffected youth with a drink problem. We see an older man with a thing for boys taking advantage of youthful inexperience and sexual awakening. Tony wants to set the record straight. This was a life changing moment. He grabbed the opportunity to live his dreams, going willingly through an open door he's quite happy to close behind him. His sole regret leaving behind his younger brother Ted, Tony soon goes off with Carlos and his band of misfits to make underground movies in New York.
Tony has been plagued with lurid nightmares since childhood. Clearly he was damaged long before Carlos got hold of him. Carlos lifts him out of Kentucky and shows him he isn't the person he thought he was. Who then is he? Is Carlos more than a monster who creates a child in his own image? Is he a trickster, a conjurer, making it up as he goes along, in the same way as his films, to justify increasingly dark desires? These are among the questions raised by the novel and I'm not sure I found the answers.
Carlos uses people to fill emptiness inside of him then spits them out. The strong hang around to become part of his Company of actors and technicians. He is a fascinating creation and it's easy to be seduced by him, like Tony. Russell cleverly gives us descriptions of his films, cod reviews and press reports that show Carlos through eyes other than Tony's. I still don't know what to make of him.
I think the novel loses its way leading up to the dramatic (inevitable) climactic event. It verges on soap style melodrama and pretty much leaves you to draw your own conclusions. I don't want to reveal the plot, but Tony embraces what he sees as normality. Maybe he never accepted he was gay, but that's not the impression I had from the story. If the ending was supposed to be redemptive sadly it didn't work for me. Tony runs away but he cannot escape his obsessive desire. The way he's brought back to Carlos and what comes next is shocking and upset me far more than the graphic content.
The narrator says he's not writing porn but isn't bothered if we get a sexual thrill from his story. There are explicit scenes of sex and violence including sadomasochism that'll disturb most readers, yet I think Russell handles this material sensitively, making us think about our reactions and the motivations of the characters, so it isn't gratuitous. The book captures emotions and feelings beautifully. The sex isn't all violent either. Tony and Carlos have some highly charged moments that will curl your toes.
In addition to Tony and Carlos there's a troupe of memorable characters, notably Holocaust survivor, Sammy. The story grabbed me. I loved Tony, trying so hard to get through the mess and find the truth. I literally gasped at certain scenes that have imprinted my memory permanently. It's a provocative novel and rather depressing, draining your emotions like Carlos uses his boys.
Complex and insightful psycho-sexual thriller that lifts the lid on a seductive world of Bohemian artistry and gay sex? Or ill-conceived sensationalism that manipulates you into thinking you've read something stylish and profound, when it's just sick, disturbing and ultimately unsatisfying?
Read it and see whether you can decide. I'm still thinking…
Publisher: Penguin ISBN: 0452268370
Buy from Lambda Rising Booksellers in the States