New Boy - William Sutcliffe
This book is very odd. It provokes the strongest reaction: sometimes I found myself really enjoying it and sometimes I hated it. Itís narrated by a teenager, Mark, who has very mixed feelings for the new boy in the sixth form, Jordan. I think a lot of people would say that Markís teenage voice is so authentic that the book is a work of genius. I disagree. I think Mark is a monster and by the end of the book, I think the author thought so too. The plot is so clearly heading in one direction that when it doesnít go there itís like a slap in the face, particularly to Mark. Iíve never read a book where I think the author hated his own character.
Mark is Jewish, ugly and obsessed with masturbation. Heís in a boys-only minor public school (thatís a private school for anyone American reading this) and walks a daily tightrope of trying to be popular. His only real attraction to the other boys is that he seems to know everything about sexósomething they are all obsessed with. Of course, his knowledge is all gleaned from books, but they donít know this.
Into the school comes Jordan: gorgeous, serious, kind, but most importantly, totally unaffected by any of the obsessions that surround Markís life. Heís just amazingly normal.† Mark sets out to make Jordan his friend for very confused motives, not least of which is his delight in watching his bottom in the shower.
The story follows both Jordanís and Markís forays into dating and sex with girls from the neighbouring school and also some unlikely conquests. At times itís razor sharp, far too much for my taste. I dare you to want to become a teacher after reading this book. When Suttcliffe turns on his obnoxious ďheroĒ with surprising ferocity, I was quite pleased. Not a good recommendation for liking a book.
However, I did read this very quickly without being at all bored. I was intrigued to see how Mark and Jordan would work out. Some of the observations are funny. Give it a go and see what you think.
But if this were my son, Iíd have him put down.
I love school stories, adolescent hormones, spotty teenage angst and introspective self-absorption competing with the natural urge to explore burgeoning sexuality. I read this one in a couple of hours.† Itís like a cross between Adrian Mole and Chris Kent - without the explicit sex and less exuberant.
Itís 1987, Thatcherís Britain, a society sharply divided by social, economic and racial differences.
Thereís a schoolboy narrator prone to lying or rather embroidering the facts, to make it sound better; but he admits it so we know heís unreliable in some aspects- yet the truth always comes out in the end.
Mark is a day pupil at a minor public school outside London, where those usually in a minority outnumber Anglo-Saxon boys.† Heís Jewish, with an inferiority complex about his appearance.†
He isnít gay.† Or so he keeps telling hunky new best friend Barry, the eponymous New Boy, object of Markís first crush.†
Mark of course is a virgin, not shy but with low self-esteem.† Heís clever and articulate, maybe not a typical 18 year old schoolboy.† He keeps the story rollicking along with amusing anecdotes about school life.† Mark isnít one of the popular boys, but heís funny, therefore okay.
Mark worries that heís not attractive to girls.† Even when he finds a willing one to experiment with the furtive fumblings donít do much for him.† Heís deeply disturbed by the effect golden boy Barry has on him, though heís certainly not the only one smitten by his devastating good looks.
Mark & Barry become friends, and as they relax together get increasingly intimate and affectionateÖthough of course theyíre both straight, as Mark insists, to convince himself more than us.† Mark arranges Barryís initiation into the joys of sex, taking vicarious pleasure from accounts of his friendís conquests.† Which prove theyíre not gay, right?
Actually the story reminded me a lot of Y Tu Mama Tambien.† Like Julio & Tenoch, Mark & Barry are confused by their feelings for each other, this intense male friendship with underlying sexual tension and an attraction like the elephant in the middle of the room.† The way Sutcliffe explores this confusion is the best part of the book.† Worse for them this takes place in the punishing environment of an all-male school.
For the final third the tone switches from light-hearted to something more serious, when suddenly life isnít so much fun for Mark.† Heís growing up and confronting truths about himself and those around him like Barry heíd rather not deal with because heís not ready.
The novel made me laugh out loud, but ultimately is disappointing because though it tantalises with the prospect of a romantic pay-off between Mark & Barry, it doesnít deliver. And older brother Danís appearance as a convenient replacement just doesnít work. Barryís affair with a middle-aged teacher is another bum note.† A woman, married with children.† I just couldnít believe in the relationship.
Reluctantly Iím prepared to accept Mark is still unsure about his sexuality- heís only 18. Heís learned the difference between love and sex, however it wouldíve worked better for me if Mark realised he can love Barry without necessarily being gay, that itís more complicated than the neat labels used by society.† Theyíre in transition, boys becoming men in a world that still regards straight as normal, and self-acceptance isnít easy.† I suspect Mark will go to university and find courage there to take his attraction further, like Dan.
Itís unusual for a coming out story not to be about the POV character and I donít think that works.† It just comes over as a cop-out that weakens the whole novel, which is a shame because as a coming-of-age story itís pretty good.† Maybe if Iíd known this before reading I wouldnít have been so frustrated because I wouldnít have expected a satisfying romantic resolution.