Here Are the Young Men
Dublin boys Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney have just finished high school. They’ve done poorly in the leaving, have been banned from their graduation, and they drink, snort, swallow and inhale prodigious quantities of anything they can get their hands on. It’s a novelist’s dilemma: how to create authentically fucked-up, drug and alcohol-addicted nihilists who live steeped in ennui, and still write a novel with enough narrative drive to keep readers turning the pages?
Rob Doyle makes a game effort in his debut novel, but we’re left with a series of character sketches and few plot questions to be resolved. These few are: which of the boys will be the first to attempt suicide? And how will junior psychopath Rez progress in his trajectory from video game violence to the real thing?
For all Doyle’s smarts and skills, he never really inhabits his characters. There’s an intellectual overlay here, as if a well-intentioned anthropologist is reconstructing the behaviour of a strange tribe. Matthew and Rez are self-aware and reliable observers. “Deeply stoned now, I found myself captivated by the creature,” Matthew says, describing a swan, and later, “... once again I was tripping at full intensity”. Rez, the philosopher of the group, says, “...what does it really mean to you to be Irish?”, before launching a considered rationale. They know the source of their pain. Chapter headings such as: “Problems with Reality: Rez and the Postmodern Condition” were probably intended to be playful, but instead they’re literal.
There’s a lot of graphic violence, including a horrifying description of a snuff movie, but Here Are the Young Men is not genuinely subversive. At heart this is an old-fashioned morality tale about the evils of drugs and on-screen violence, and poor life choices and where they lead. “You started out playing with the stuff – the extremism, the chaos – and it felt vital and exhilarating,” says Matthew, “but then suddenly you couldn’t control it, you’d gone too far and it wasn’t exciting any more, only frightening.”
Our homegrown proponents of this genre – say, early Tsiolkas, Chris Flynn and Omar Musa – choose exceptional young men as protagonists, give them desires, energy and complexity, and then devise a story to test their mettle. Doyle’s boys want nothing, object to nothing and fight for nothing. They sink in a quagmire not of their own making, but of his. LS
Bloomsbury, 304pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 13, 2014 as "Rob Doyle, Here Are the Young Men ". Subscribe here.