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Review of "Boys"

By David Lloyd
Syracuse University Press, 2004
Review by Tony O'Brien on Aug 10th 2005

This set of stories revolves around the lives of a bunch of schoolboys in 1966, something the author (or the publisher) takes the trouble to inform us of on the title pages of each half of the book. This first half is called 'On Monday', and contains a set of twelve fairly brief stories. The characters overlap from story to story. Some are told from a first person perspective; others in third person. The result is that you get a range of insights into the lives of the boys, their teachers, and families. Several of the stories are set at school. There's even one about the school janitor, and we get some insights into the world of Miss Hart, the English teacher, a wistful and romantic alcoholic. They're charming stories, nicely observed, and there's warmth in Lloyd's narration. The author stands back for the most part, and lets his characters speak, although he clearly has considerable empathy with them. The characters are diverse. There's a fat kid, a skinny kid, a kid who can dodge a fight, a kid who can end a fight. For the most part these are working class boys, unsophisticated, not especially given to classroom activities. Many of the stories are like anecdotes. There's a central event, some sense of a setting and context, although not always a dramatic development. The result is rather like opening the door to someone's house, taking a quick look inside, and closing it before your observations can lead to an explanation. That's fine in principle, although I was left feeling that I needed to be a little more involved in order for some of these anecdotes to really matter. Stories like Stain, though, have genuine tension and a satisfying sense of getting one's own back on a rather unkind teacher. And in Portraits the simple-minded janitor Jim exacts a poignant revenge on the mean-spirited geography teacher, Mr. Bowland. The conclusion of this story has the satisfying effect of keeping the tension alive after the final sentence. In the memorable story Snow the only male character is an observer who says very little, but the story touchingly evokes the sadness of loss.

†Lloyd's writing is straightforward. The stories are told in the plain language that would be familiar to his characters. You get the sense that the stories are written for a teen readership as much as for adults, but it would be misleading to characterize this work as either teen or adult. It straddles the two markets, and what adult insights might be lost in the teen point of view are compensated by the directness of the insights into a world from which contemporary adults are both historically and chronologically alienated. There are a few instances where Lloyd overtells, such as in 'Isaac and Abraham' where a biblical story is being used as an allusion, and the protagonist informs us that 'I knew exactly what she's talking about'. And the phrase 'get a life' (in As Always, Jason) seemed out of place in the 1966 setting.

In the novella Boys Only Lloyd really finds his voice. The story covers the life of three boys, Joey, Frank, and Chris, told through the first person point of view of Chris. This is a coming of age story, with the relationships between the boys following a series of twists and turns as they encounter violence, girls, death, and loyalty. This is a group living on the edge of a world they know little of, but which is very familiar to the modern reader. Joey's cousin dies in Vietnam, Chris's sister, the moody and idealistic Jenny, is anti-war, reading On the Road, and will make it to Haight Ashbury if her boyfriend's clapped out Ford can get past Cleveland. Frank is rather dim, and when he becomes aware that making it socially it is going to be difficult, he gives us Dylan's 'join the army if you fail' line. There are many affecting scenes in this story. Chris's Welsh grandfather, delightfully referred to as his 'Taid', recalls with regret the loss of the familiar landscape of Wales. When his Taid is confined to bed, Chris can barely bring himself to help him with his urine bottle. Frank's grief at the death of his grandfather is so overwhelming it is something of a relief to the reader to follow the story at one remove through Joey and Chris. Of the three boys, Joey is the most knowing, and it he who eventually gives voice to the theme of the novella, that they all have to grow up.

Overall, this is a highly readable collection. It would make a great text for a high school literature class, and could also inform the grandchildren of the sixties generation of how things were in the year that preceded the summer of love.†

© 2005 Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: [email protected]

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