Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury; 304 pages; 2015.
Rob Doyle’s Here are the Young Men should come with a warning: this is a very VERY dark novel. But it’s compelling and page-turning, and one of the most visceral books I have read in a long time.
A Dublin summer
Set in the Dublin summer of 2003, it focuses on a group of teenage boys — Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney — who have just finished school and are awaiting the outcome of their Leaving Cert exam results, which will determine their future lives.
But these boys are Trouble. Matthew, for instance, has been barred from attending his graduation ceremony for “unacceptable behaviour” throughout the course of the school year, while Kearney, who has an obsession with death, has disturbing fantasies about killing people as if he is living in a violent video game.
Now thrust into a post-school void, the gang of four hang out together, filling their time with drugs and booze and parties. They drift from day to day, dislocated and alienated from their communities and their parents, struggling to see any future for themselves despite the abundance of jobs and opportunities open to them. (The book is set at the height of the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland was awash with cash and affluence.)
The only thing that holds the group together is their shared need to escape reality:
The buzz from the hash made everything warm, like the world was coated in a soft, amber light. Everything felt more vivid and more interesting than usual – the hash was like a tool to drain the banality out of life. (p30)
Told in alternate chapters from Matthew, Kearney and Rez’s points of view, the structure of the book gives us insights into each character’s take on life. Matthew is academically bright and wants more out of life but he’s bored, lonely and doesn’t know how to change things; Kearney is violent and volatile, lacks a moral compass and is oblivious to the fact that he is not well-liked; while Rez is bookish and clever but thinks too much and is sliding into a dark depression.
Over the course of the summer, things change: Cocker drifts away to another set of friends (we never actually hear his side of the story); Kearney goes to America to hang out with his older brother; Matthew takes a part-time job in a petrol station and becomes romantically involved with a girl from school; and Rez begins working as a nightwatchman, which turns his world a little upside down.
Rez worried. He worried that he was losing it, smoking too much dope and falling out of orbit with the world. For as long as he could remember, he’d had the sense that he wasn’t as fully connected to reality as you were supposed to be. But he had always struggled to express the specifics of this condition, even to himself. Recently, so much had fallen away, no longer trusted as being real: emotions, pleasure, music, art, even gestures and expressions. Nothing was simply itself; everything was a reflection of something else. Nothing was to be trusted. (p51)
Veering towards violence
It’s only when Kearney returns from his time in the States that life takes on a harder, more dangerous edge for them all: Matthew has fallen in with a drug pusher; Rez has become suicidal; and Kearney has become mentally unhinged thanks to a heavy diet of hash, hard drugs, booze and aggressive video games.
While the trio have never been violent — “Fighting had never been our thing, despite the punk-rock attitude and the cynical agenda. In fact, we were against it.” — Kearney’s grip on reality means the game has now changed.
This is how Matthew describes it:
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 any more, only frightening. (p210)
It’s at this point that Here are the Young Men slides into confronting territory. There are scenes and actions here that are disturbing and abhorrent, providing the reader with glimpses into Kearney’s deranged mind. But it’s not done for shock value — it’s to make us realise that when people fall through the cracks, when society turns its back, the repercussions can be devastating.
Reading this book is a bit like taking a dangerous rollercoaster ride: you hang on for dear life and hope that you can get off with all your limbs intact. But for all its nihilistic tendencies, its pessimism and its harsh depiction of teenage life, it’s not without hope. I will leave the last word to Rez:
The challenge was to live in this weird, catastrophic, haywire world and ride it out, create your own pride and meaning within it, to face up to the nihilism and not be crushed by it. You had to keep yourself alive: through hate, through loving whatever there was left to love, through music and art and inspiration, through passion and intensity and feeling. (p284)
I read this book as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.
This is my 8th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle on 21 February 2015, proving that sometimes it takes me many, many YEARS to read things on my TBR!