Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
by Barry Levy
2008, Paperback, 243 pages. ISBN-9781876819804
As befits a small, regional publisher, this novel is set in Ipswich, the satellite town situated west of Brisbane on the banks of the Bremer River. Levy writes pithily and well about his characters, and we are drawn unwillingly into the horrors of their adolescent world – a world of alcohol, drugs and vandalism, where disenchanted youth congregate under bridges, avoid attending school, and become involved in random destruction for its own sake. The parents of Gray and Gordon Morrow, and the brittle Dusty Jones, are neglectful, self-obsessed, ill-educated, and physically and/or sexually abusive towards the young people in their care. The teenagers respond with alienated behaviour that threatens to ruin their young lives before they’ve even begun.
The character of Gray Morrow provides a window into this world. The teenager has been crippled from an unwarranted and vicious beating by his biological father, who has then abandoned his family. Gray suffers from severe asthma. He is frail and frightened, but also astute, perceptive and deeply feeling – a memorable character with a unique way of seeing the world around him. He looks up to his older brother, Gordon, an out-of-control thug, who frequently takes Gray out on his motorbike to Mount Moon, the only place they have to escape from their chaotic home life and find any kind of short-lived peace. Their mother’s new boyfriend, Mick, treats the youths with contempt, turfing them out of their rooms for visitors, and generally behaving in a hostile, aggressive manner. Alcohol is a catalyst for family violence. Most of the adults in this novel are as childish and irresponsible as the teenagers.
Levy paints a realistic picture of what life is like for this generation of neglected youngsters, and it’s a bleak picture indeed. Bored, promiscuous, and frequently high on drugs and booze, they break into houses in groups to steal and vandalise. They are so disconnected from society that they feel no empathy for their victims, or shame over their actions. They act with a sense of entitlement made poignant by the fact that they have few rights, even within their own families, and little to look forward to.
One ray of hope is Ruth Hannah, an older woman who operates a shelter for wayward and homeless youth. Ruth is the only solid parental figure in their world, but her efforts to provide solace and sanctuary are brought down by a bureaucracy that demands qualifications she does not possess, leading to a public shaming that horrifies the loyal young people she has been trying to help. Detective Constable Watno Thornes from the Juvenile Aid Bureau makes some attempts to influence the Morrow boys to change their ways and create a worthwhile life, but this early portrait of police kindness proves to be false. Thornes turns out to be an opportunistic bully, and the feisty young girl Dusty becomes his victim when she refuses to provide him with sexual favours and is beaten to death in a back alley. Gray witnesses this horrendous act of violence, and this destroys whatever respect he and Gordon may have had left for authority and leads to further violence.
As If! presents a sad and all-too-common scenario for which there are no easy answers. It is memorable, disturbing, frightening and certainly not pleasant to read, but its realism cannot be denied. I was disappointed, however, that more care wasn’t taken in its editing. Inconsistencies, spelling errors and laboured metaphors mar an otherwise accomplished pice of writing. The Bremer River is sometimes ‘brown’, sometimes ‘red’, sometimes ‘black’. Dusty’s mother, Jean (p.111) is described as having an Elvis haircut with ‘sideburns’ (a bearded lady, perhaps?). Ruth is painted as devoutly religious; she makes the young people in her care pray before meals and chides them for swearing, but this doesn’t sit comfortably with other passages where she talks about ‘karma’ (p.228) or uses swear words such as ‘goddamn’ herself. Copy-editing-wise, Gray Morrow is ‘Gray’ in the early pages; the word ‘shier’ is used for ‘shyer’, ‘passed’ for ‘past’, ‘complementary’ for ‘complimentary’, and there’s a strange reference to a ‘General Paton’, all things that really should have been picked up and rectified before going to press. Some laboured descriptions that don’t quite come off also detract from the strength of the narrative: a television is oxymoronically ‘blaring something inaudible’ (p.112); when Thornes visits Ruth’s house he leans against the desk, ‘the back of the computer sticking into his spine like a large misshapen toothpick’ (p.136); Gray ‘feel[s] the relief of [Thornes’] passing gaze rifle through [him] like a sharp wind down [his] ribcage’ (p.138); Gray’s mother ‘pulls [him] onto her lap like [he] is a carpet or something’ (p.160). On the three occasions when groups of youths break into and trash houses, their modus operandi is identical each time, which lessens the impact of these scenes and makes the reader feel that these passages are ‘writing by numbers’ designed purely to shock and dismay the reader.
The presentation is also somewhat weird – the cover photo shows three shiny, quite well-dressed and attractive young people posing before a wall of graffiti, bearing little resemblance to the characters depicted inside. A contents page providing page numbers for untitled chapters seems like a waste of space and simply looks odd. The back cover blurb declares that the novel ‘mov[es] between the fringe town of Ipswich and affluent Brisbane’, a statement that really can’t go unchallenged, given that Ipswich City is now host to million-dollar penthouses and ‘affluent Brisbane’ contains legions of young homeless who can be seen on any given night in the city. A recommendation is not written by any writer of note, but by an Associate Professor in Psychology who compares Levy’s writing to ‘early Henry Miller’ and declares that ‘This book is a good read for those sensible enough to buy it’.
All of these production issues detract from what is an otherwise courageous, honest and unflinching portrayal of youthful disenfranchisement and despair, with strongly drawn characters and instantly recognisable dialogue and settings. The world Levy describes is not pleasant and there are no happy endings, but its truth is undeniable.
About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been writing, publishing and performing since the early 1980s. Her published poetry collections include: Conscious Razing: combustible poems (1986), Writers of the Storm: 5 East Coast Performance Poets (1993), Fit of Passion (1997), Girl With Green Hair (2000), and My Arthritic Heart (2006). Her poetry has been broadcast on television and radio in Australia and the USA, and published in literary journals. A past winner of poetry slams in St Kilda, Melbourne (1991) and Austin, Texas (1994), she has worked with several performance poetry outfits including ‘The Word Warriors’ (1990-1), ‘Stand-Up Poets’ (1992-4), ‘Ozpoets’ (USA tour 1994), and ‘Fit of Passion’ (1995-2000). Since 2006 has been singing and playing bush bass in the Brisbane-based alt-country-blues-roots trio ‘Cathouse Creek’. An experienced writer, editor, reviewer and manuscript assessor, she has worked on many community arts projects and in 2004 was employed as a writer for Brisbane City Council’s ‘Creative Democracy: Homelessness’ Project.