New Boy - William Sutcliffe

Ladymol's Review

This book is very odd. It provokes the strongest reaction: sometimes I found myself really enjoying it and sometimes I hated it. It’s 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 Mark’s 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 doesn’t go there it’s like a slap in the face, particularly to Mark. I’ve never read a book where I think the author hated his own character.

Mark is Jewish, ugly and obsessed with masturbation. He’s in a boys-only minor public school (that’s 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 sex—something they are all obsessed with. Of course, his knowledge is all gleaned from books, but they don’t know this.

Into the school comes Jordan: gorgeous, serious, kind, but most importantly, totally unaffected by any of the obsessions that surround Mark’s life. He’s 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 Jordan’s and Mark’s forays into dating and sex with girls from the neighbouring school and also some unlikely conquests. At times it’s 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 “hero” 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, I’d have him put down.

Cerisaye's Review

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.  It’s like a cross between Adrian Mole and Chris Kent - without the explicit sex and less exuberant.

It’s 1987, Thatcher’s Britain, a society sharply divided by social, economic and racial differences.

There’s a schoolboy narrator prone to lying or rather embroidering the facts, to make it sound better; but he admits it so we know he’s 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.  He’s Jewish, with an inferiority complex about his appearance. 

He isn’t gay.  Or so he keeps telling hunky new best friend Barry, the eponymous New Boy, object of Mark’s first crush. 

Mark of course is a virgin, not shy but with low self-esteem.  He’s clever and articulate, maybe not a typical 18 year old schoolboy.  He keeps the story rollicking along with amusing anecdotes about school life.  Mark isn’t one of the popular boys, but he’s funny, therefore okay.

Mark worries that he’s not attractive to girls.  Even when he finds a willing one to experiment with the furtive fumblings don’t do much for him.  He’s deeply disturbed by the effect golden boy Barry has on him, though he’s certainly not the only one smitten by his devastating good looks.

Mark & Barry become friends, and as they relax together get increasingly intimate and affectionate…though of course they’re both straight, as Mark insists, to convince himself more than us.  Mark arranges Barry’s initiation into the joys of sex, taking vicarious pleasure from accounts of his friend’s conquests.  Which prove they’re 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 isn’t so much fun for Mark.  He’s growing up and confronting truths about himself and those around him like Barry he’d rather not deal with because he’s 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 doesn’t deliver. And older brother Dan’s appearance as a convenient replacement just doesn’t work. Barry’s affair with a middle-aged teacher is another bum note.  A woman, married with children.  I just couldn’t believe in the relationship.

Reluctantly I’m prepared to accept Mark is still unsure about his sexuality- he’s only 18. He’s learned the difference between love and sex, however it would’ve worked better for me if Mark realised he can love Barry without necessarily being gay, that it’s more complicated than the neat labels used by society.  They’re in transition, boys becoming men in a world that still regards straight as normal, and self-acceptance isn’t easy.  I suspect Mark will go to university and find courage there to take his attraction further, like Dan.

It’s unusual for a coming out story not to be about the POV character and I don’t 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 it’s pretty good.  Maybe if I’d known this before reading I wouldn’t have been so frustrated because I wouldn’t have expected a satisfying romantic resolution.