Good Reading : July 2007
JULY 2007 ı goodreading 23 categorical directed the film adaptation, as ‘Camus for kids’.These slang-heavy books are tough, emphatic portraits of teenagers from broken homes, existing in a world of petty crime and juvenile gangs. The 1960s provided surprisingly few such stories and one has to look to the east and Haruki Murakami’s 4-million-selling Norwegian Wood for the definitive coming-of-age story of the era. Beneath its sexed-up pop culture exterior lies a deep well of sadness. It’s Murakami’s most divisive work, and not his best, but still essential reading. Charles Webb’s The Graduate is the other great look at the era; a wry, funny indictment of the conformist adult world with all the great scenes you remember from the film adaptation. If Hinton’s kids had grown up in New York in the ’70s and idolised NBA players instead of Paul Newman, they may have written something like Jim Carroll’s harrowing The Basketball Diaries, a disturbing, autobiographical story of Carroll’s descent into heroin addiction and squalor. A different kind of desperation is played out in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, perhaps the best chronicling of dazed and confused ’70s kids. It may sound sensationalist (a family of girls commit suicide) but as a meta- phor for the loss of innocence and an illustration of how teen- age boys project all their hopes and dreams onto the girls they love so blindly, it’s absolutely extraordi- nary and the most worthy recipient of the tiresomely overused ‘new Catcher in the Rye’ tag. A further detour into ’70s suburbia locates Tom Perrotta’s undervalued short story collection, Bad Haircut. Spanning the teenage years of the amiable Buddy, the stories see our narrator dumped by a girlfriend for her creepy ex, shown pornography by an elderly neighbour, narrowly avoid a race riot, and break into a neighbour’s house seeking retri- bution only to find the child’s mother drunk at noon and watching cartoons in her bathrobe.The ambiguous thrill of youthful discovery is captured perfectly: ‘All at once, every- thing in the world seemed possible, the worst stuff I could even begin to imagine’. Across the pond, Britain’s turbulent 70s and the rise of Thatcherism form the backdrop for Jonathan Coe’s multi-layered The Rotters’ Club. Set in unfashionable Bir mingham, it laments, as many of the best coming- of-age novels do, not only the fading youth of its charac- ters but the end of an era. Coe captures a Britain moving towards the tenets of individualism and economic rationalism that have marked politics ever since. As the seething anger of punk music replaces the escapist fantasy of progressive rock as youth’s music of choice, it becomes clear that nothing will ever be the same again. Darker still is singer-songwriter Joe Pernice’s Meat is Murder, named after, and inspired by,The Smiths’ 1985 album of the same name. It begins with the sentence ‘I was pretty sure I was going to throw up’ and maintains the gothic gloom throughout, with suicide, rape, schoolyard bullying and humiliation all figuring heavily.Then the magic moment of connection comes, when the narrator’s two obsessions collide: the girl he loves, Alison, drops a note onto his desk, a track list of the album he is obsessed with, written in ‘the sexiest, most mature cursive handwriting’ he has ever seen. But nothing will come of it, it’s not that kind of story. Still, the ability of Pernice to fashion bleakness into beauty, so apparent in his own songcraft, means Meat is Murder functions as a fitting tribute to a great album, a vivid recollection of a time and place and an insightful essay on how we cling to music to get us through our darkest hours. Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, originally written for his master’s thesis, is another masterful example of the enre.Written in the ame shining prose that has earned comparisons with F Scott Fitzgerald, Mysteries follows Art Bechstein on his first summer after graduation as he becomes involved in a romantic triangle with the glamorous Arthur and the neurotic Phlox. Meanwhile, his gangster father observes his new lifestyle with distaste. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, released as a film the same year as Chabon’s debut (1988), was a much-hyped look at the glamorous ifestyle of a fact- hecker at a trendy New York publica- on. As a snapshot f spoilt, superficial 980s youth, it’s fine, ough easily eclipsed y McInerney’s lower- ofile later work. Of Australian stories, the best include Nick Earls’s After January, a sweet, surpris- ingly oldfashioned story of a boy’s last summer before uni- versity and his first love, featuring one of Earls’s patented tongue-tied romantics. It is bettered only by his own incan- descent Making Laws for Clouds, a sad and lovely tale centred on a narrator the author has termed ‘quietly heroic’. Australian fiction has been particularly strong in the burgeoning ‘Young Adult’ category, with Scott Monk’s tough Raw, Phillip Gwynne’s Deadly, Image adapted from the cover The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides Philip Roth’s outrageously precocious Goodbye, Columbus ... is a short, perfectly-formed novella dripping with lust, longing and the blunt pain of realisation.