This is a rather extraordinary first novel. It is written in a style that ravishes the reader because it is constantly inventive and nervily inflected with a maximum suggestiveness. Ronnie Scott is superb at capturing the intimations and innuendos that any human heart – perhaps especially a not fully formed, post-adolescent one – is capable of. He is as good at evoking a world of young men who are a bit in love with, certainly not uninterested in, each other. But The Adversary is too talented a piece of debut fiction to be received with hands-off courtesy. The besetting problem of this putative novel that everyone should have a look at – to cotton on to a writer who has a wizardly quicksilver command of language – is that not enough happens in the book, and the author’s apparent belief that it does comes to seem like naivety.
The central figure, whose point of view dominates the book like an avalanche, lives with a slightly older man – the set-up is not sexual – with a more masterful personality, who parts with him but continues to dominate him. Meanwhile, the put-upon protagonist, who finds it difficult to act, is forever dashing off and chasing his tail over guys who seem to testify to nothing more than the evanescence of human connection. Does the American guy just want him for a visa? But how’s he going to get that? But what the fuck: on a clear day, with some limpidity of mind, one can see the never-never. Or whatever. At some high level of cerebration The Adversary has the effect of cockteasing the reader because it so manifestly lacks an object correlative, a basic plot, that its indirections look a little complacent.
Scott’s style is a bit like the poetry of the great non-connective funsters of the New York School, spearheaded by Frank O’Hara and then practised with a consummate modulation of the apprehension of things not there, things thin as air, by John Ashbery. This is a book that ends up being smart in the face of situations it cannot see or are subtilised into a nearly nonsensical subjectivism so that the reader, in the old Bob Dylan formulation, knows something is happening but not what it is.
Such Eliotic indirection, such Ashberian evasion of meaning, doesn’t quite fit a novel as verbally deft and as brilliant in the superficies of its psychological notation as this. But Ronnie Scott has real talent and his next book should have people camping out to see what he can do.
Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "Ronnie Scott, The Adversary".
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