He frowned. She laughed. He brightened. She pouted. He grinned. She flinched. Come on: we don’t do that. Except when we’re pretending. Only babies frown and flinch. The rest of us just fake with our fake faces. He grinned. No he didn’t. If a guy grins at you for real these days, you’d better chop his head off before he chops off yours. Soon the sneeze and the yawn will be mostly for show. Even the twitch. She laughed. No she didn’t. We laugh about twice a year. Most of us have lost our laughs and now make do with false ones.
London Fields, Martin Amis
Meet Rez, Kearney, Matthew and Cocker, the ‘young men’ of the title of Rob Doyle’s brutal but brilliant debut novel Here Are the Young Men, all of whom are tired of faking with their fake faces.
The novel tells the story of these young men as they spend a purgatorial summer between finishing school and waiting for their exam results. None of them are sure of what they want to do with their futures – go to University or get a job, but all are determined to have one last summer of excess and ‘getting fucked’.
The setting is Dublin in 2003, the height of the Celtic Tiger when these young men have a raft of possibilities ahead of them. There is work to be had, college places to apply for and family offering jobs in America. They have loving families, attentive girlfriends and aside from worry about exam results, the future is bright.
However, as Doyle delves into the minds of each of the young men in turn – from the depressive Rex to the sociopathic Kearney – what he finds instead is emptiness and anxiety, petty violence and disturbing sexual desire. Growing up with reality TV, violent video games and easy access to drugs and alcohol, the young men are looking inward and don’t like what they see. Yet these are not the mindless of thugs that populate say an Irvine Welsh novel, Doyle’s characters are smart, but they are bored.
It wasn’t a hangover, just a sickening sense of emptiness, like there was a cold pit inside me and I was at the bottom, looking up towards a distant skylight, shivering.
A sense of exile pervades this novel. The young men are exiled from their families, from their city and their culture and ultimately from themselves. There is a sense of removal and an alienation that pervades their lives. The reality television programmes they watch claim to be real but aren’t. The pornography they watch is not real, yet it forms the framework for their relationships with their girlfriends, to the extent that Rez cannot tell if he or his girlfriend enjoy sex, or are just pretending. Kearney, the most unhinged of the group, has imaginary and not so imaginary conversations with a character from the video games he plays incessantly, until real violence and screen violence merge and blur and even he has no idea of what is real anymore.
Lately I’d grown depressed at the thought – which not long ago would have felt exciting – that most of my friends were twisted, volatile outsiders. You started out playing with this stuff – the extremism, the chaos – and it felt vital and exhilarating; but then suddenly you couldn’t control it, you’d gone too far and it wasn’t exciting anymore, only frightening.
As the boys try to fill their summer, Doyle explores the psyche of these teenage boys and what he finds veers from the general teenage angst of Matthew, through to Rez’s depression and Kearney’s sociopathy. With the exception of Kearney, whose American Psycho-esque rants will horrify and entertain in equal measure, Doyle remarkably captures a generation of young men drowning in anxiety and isolation.
Like Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange, they try to find solace in drink, drugs, sex and violence but these diversions only isolate them further and in that particular period of time between school and ‘real-life’, they are struggling to find something meaningful to aspire to. They all want to experience rather that watch life and for Kearney, that takes on a darker tone as his latent violence threatens to take him and the rest of the gang into territory they could not previously have imagined.
The tale of a boy on their class who killed himself echoes around the narrative of Here Are The Young Men and Matthew’s girlfriend Jen reminds him that
More men between 18 and 25 kill themselves in Ireland than in any other country in the world – apart from Norway
Here Are the Young Men cleverly explores the world that today’s young men and women are growing up in and find it, rather than them, lacking. This is life as a simulation and as their attempts to find something real to experience races along, it is inevitable that one, or all of them, will crash with disastrous consequences.
This book is definitely not for everyone, it is bleak, brutal and at times really tough to read, with violence, date rape, anger and foul language populating its pages. It can at times veer into the implausible and the female characters are underwhelming, but the novel is alive with a sharp, intoxicating prose and a dark sensibility that peels back the fake face to reveal the true mind. Here are the young men, they might be frightening but they are real.
Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders,
Here are the young men, well where have they been?
We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,
Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in…
Joy Division, Decades