Book review: When We Were Animals

THE teenaged drama of tortured sexual development and violent rush of growth is probably given its most gothic representation in the virtual subgenre of vampire fiction.

Joshua Gaylord

Del Rey, €16.07

Joshua Gaylord takes a somewhat different perspective on this territory ratcheting down the puckish bloodletting of the archetypal vampires in favour of something less fantastical.

What he comes up with is a suburban yarn set against a background of a kind of sexual Fight Club involving a teenaged girl called Lumen.

Her mother is dead and she is reared by her dad and we get a sense of their lives and the various shenanigans at the local high school.

Gaylord sets up this notion of an intense coming-of-age ritual which he is describes as breaching, a process that requires teenagers of this particular American town (for no particular reason other than it is the principle imagining that is going on between the covers of the book) to cut loose and run wild with the other youths who have reached sexual maturity.

The ritual running which takes place after midnight at times dictated by the position of the moon has shades of Lord of the Flies with sometimes barbaric sexual violence.

Once the events of a night of unleashed sexuality occur and a girl staggers past the white picket fence of her home to collapse bleeding on the front lawn of her home the whole thing seems to get subsumed in the collective subconscious of the town.

Lumen is an unusual bookish girl who is late getting to the table of this hedonistic behaviour.

Obsessed with her long dead mother she takes to the shafts of the old mines running under the town and seems to be finding her own very particular map to the underworld, literally and metaphysically.

Gaylord too is interested in skating between the literal and the metaphysical grounding his story in a kind of suburban soap opera and then shifting the poetic intensity of the writing to bring the animalistic sex and violence to life.

His central thesis appears to be that as his young narrator puts it, “humanity is, underneath all the cookie-baking and song singing, a shameful and secret nastiness.”

The feral girls of this fiction are locked in a Madonna-whore complex that is expounded in a manner that is at times lumpen and repetitive.

The novel might find a niche in young adult fiction. It is promoted by the publishers as a break-out work like The Virgin Suicides but it lacks the stylistic particularity that gave the Eugenides book its idiosyncratic power.

Gaylord mentions Evan Hunter because it is a name assumed by one of the characters in the story and also because he was the author of Blackboard Jungle which this story echoes.

But there is a half disparaging reference to the fact that Hunter used another name to write crime books.

The late great Ed McBain certainly did write crime books and Gaylord would have done well to find even half the narrative strength of a McBain book and something approaching that level of characterisation to put some gusto into his literary ambition.


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