“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Review: The Mary Smokes Boys

The Mary Smokes Boys
By Patrick Holland
Transit Lounge

Patrick Holland’s second novel, The Mary Smokes Boys, is a seemingly straightforward tale. Grey North grows up in rural Queensland outside of Brisbane. When he is still an adolescent, his mother dies in childbirth, and, since neither his grandmother nor his alcoholic father have either the will or the ability to look after him, he and his newborn sister are effectively orphaned. Grey soon joins up with a roving pack of boys—all orphaned or neglected—who congregate at the Mary Smokes River every night.
            In a sense, the boys of Mary Smokes are sort of like the Lost Boys from Peter Pan: a group of almost feral children who, despite having to fend for themselves in an adult manner, have retained a sort of otherworldly innocence. What the book does effectively is to unfurl the inevitability of their innocence intersecting with the corrupt world outside. Despite Grey’s best efforts to protect both his young sister and his friends, it becomes clear very early on that the fragile paradise he has constructed is ultimately untenable.
            But to focus on the plot of this novel is to miss what actually makes it so incredibly effective; the main character of this story is ultimately Holland’s prose. Although Holland’s writing is hardly expansive, neither is it a minimalism. His sentences, though often simple, posses an unusual and engaging syntax, and at the moments where he jumps into high rhetoric, the result is incredibly moving:
  • ‘And while the woods were burning he lead her to the bank of Mary Smokes Creek and he brought her a drink of the water in his hands and they stayed there on the other side of the water, on the opposite bank from the world, on the wide and starry plain where the wind and the sound of rushing water were their only companions and they needed no others, for every speechless word she spoke was intended only for him and intended only for this night where there was no future.’

In moments like these (and, indeed, in the plot itself), The Mary Smokes Boys recalls aspects of William Faulkner’s writing and similarly is able to find a rare beauty in the cadences of common speech.
            As the clear sense of foreboding throughout the novel suggests, this is ultimately a sad book, but its particular power exists in watching the destruction of these characters arrive as slowly and quietly as the Mary Smokes River itself. Much like the way that Grey observes the natural world with a careful but detached eye, the reader, too, feels simultaneously close to these characters and incredibly removed from them. Although this novel is ostensibly a realist work, it ultimately reveals itself as a sort of fantasy or romance (in the medieval sense), since the boys’ perspective on the world is inherently remote from reality, even outside of it.
            It is this otherworldly quality, which makes The Mary Smokes Boys such an interesting and unusual novel; even when the looming disaster coiled within the book finally springs, it—thankfully—lacks a clear rationale or moral framework. These aren’t characters being punished for their sins, but rather powerless, marginal people being overrun by forces more powerful than they are; their particular ends are irrational in the way that all violence is. The Mary Smokes Boys is a beautifully written novel that appears to be much more simple than it is. It’s an incredibly engrossing book, and I can’t wait to read whatever Holland comes up with next.

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