4 out of 5 stars
Sunday, 9 June 2013
The Loners by Nigel P.
4 out of 5 stars
Everybody has to rebel!
It is 1978 and like any 15 year old English school boy Nigel has lots of dreams. Of course many dreams are never fulfilled, but Nigel is determined to be lead guitarist, singer and song writer in his own band, The Loners. The real driving force behind this desire is that Nigel is convinced that this will make him the fantasy of every school girl. The trouble is that Nigel goes to a boys’ school and the girls are a distant, wished for mystery, across the road and down the way a little. Of course the music Nigel is interested in is Punk: none of that ‘commercial’ stuff. Surely with a bit of practice, keeping an eye out for other musicians, and a bit of luck and hard work this dream will come true?
This is a book about adolescence which will appeal to both youth and adults, especially those adult who remember the era. On one level this is a feel good novel, but if the readers dig just a little deeper they will find some deeper thoughts and ideas, and more than a little irony.
The Loners is a first person narrative. Nigel has given his novel a more unusual structure. The Preface claims to be written by Dr. Arthur Arbuthnot, Nigel’s English teacher, but we immediately suspect that it is a complete fabrication of the author. In this way Nigel immediately gives the novel a postmodern feeling as we become aware that the book is a ‘fabrication,’ a construct of the author, just as all our memories are very biased by our interpretations and point of view. This is not ‘real life,’ though as soon as we get into the story it will immediately seem so. The first half of the novel, Part One, Being There Is Half The Fun, very much has the feel of a ‘coming of age’ story with school boy humour, exuberance and light headedness. It establishes the background of the story and then follows the events from the forming of the band to the climax of the first concert. Chapter 19, the beginning of Part Two, Being There Is All Of It, leaps forward in time, well into 1979, almost to the end of the story. Here we are presented with a quite different, more adult Nigel, surrounded by problems and a darker view of the world. Then in Chapter 20 we return to 1978 and the rest of the novel progresses from there to a second climax. By arranging the text in this way Nigel has given this second half a sense of leaving the naivety of youth and working towards an unavoidable truth. The readers’ interest in Part Two is maintained by introducing two new band members, the fraternal twins Hayden and Helen Tooley, and by the working out of the details of the plot changes revealed in Chapter 19. While this second half is not boring it lacks just a little and could have benefited by adding just a little more unexpected plot details to maintain interest.
The tone of much of the novel is ironic, usually at the young Nigel’s expense. In Chapter 4, for example, we see Nigel and his new friend, Ron Tuck, burning records which are popular on the charts but which they view as crassly commercial and ‘establishment:’
“The smoke swirls up into the grey sky and we watch in silence for several minutes as our innocence burns away with it.”
Later in that chapter Nigel contemplates the grief of the newly widowed Mrs. Tuck and realizes a little of what being an adult really is. The record burning by comparison seems childish. In this case Nigel realizes the irony but in much of the text he does not. There is also considerable light hearted humour, especially in Part One. The “spotted dick” incident in Chapter 14 is a laugh out loud moment in a very juvenile, school boy way. We realize we all carried on that way.
Youth and rebellion is very much the theme of The Loners. Since the 1950’s we have come to view rebellion as a ‘normal’ part of adolescence. Recently, however, psychologists such as Robert Epstein (The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering The Adult In Every Teen: Quill Diver Books, 2007) have come to view our whole construct of adolescence as questionable, including rebellion. In Nigel’s novel the main character sees himself as being a part of a subversive Punk culture without realizing that it is just that, a culture in which thousands of youth say on mass, “I will rebel! I am different!” Nigel is part of the mass, not rebelling against it. Closely allied with the main theme is the issue of success. Our society very much encourages us to achieve wealth and prestige. But is this the whole of success, or even a part of it at all? What about the rapture of doing something well? We see the accomplishment of playing an instrument well, for example Sebastian’s bliss while playing the piano (Ch. 8). From perhaps the opposite perspective, we see the high of literally fleeing from trouble caused by ‘bad fun’ (Ch. 1). Girls and romance is yet another theme. Is having a girlfriend prestigious? Doesn’t this lead to possessiveness and jealousy? And what is real love?
Nigel has a friendly attitude toward people and the characters in The Loners are certainly likeable. As I have already said, we relate to these characters because we see in them ourselves as young people. Even those characters who are destined to end up ‘bad,’ have aspects we like: their grit, their spirit de corps. Nigel himself is analysed in depth and has a definite arc of development. The minor characters of Angus and Terry also develop and have an important counterbalancing role to the main story about Nigel. Most of the other characters, though, remain static. The most interesting aspect of the novel’s characters is their blind spots, their self-ignorance. As we have already hinted the young Nigel is ignorant of the fact that his ‘rebellion’ is in fact very much a result of following the crowd. Similarly he does not see that his bid for success is very much driven by society’s values. The alert reader sees what Nigel does not.
From the perspective of social analysis The Loners is an intelligent depiction of late Counterculture/early Generation X. In Chapter 3 Nigel says that the students in his school relate to the Punk star Johnny Rotten when he says people should not have any heroes because “… they’re all useless.” The irony is of course that Rotten is exactly that, their hero, and what is more one manufactured by entrepreneur and impresario Malcolm McLaren. Although McLaren’s scheme may have originally been motivated by art (a counterculture comment on society), many perhaps quite rightly believe this soon became a totally cynical manipulation of the mass to make money (a decidedly Generation X aim). Nigel soon reveals himself to be similarly quite artistically talented but also very much a wheeler-dealer.
The idea of society as a power structure which oppresses and controls the mass, as proposed by Marx and later theorists such as Foucault, is clearly represented in The Loners. In Chapter 3, for example, we see a description of Nigel’s school and the masters as a bullying upholder of ‘the system’s values,’ right along with extreme punishment and a ‘don’t criticize the establishment’ attitude. Similarly in Chapters 1 and 8 the Christian religion is represented as being oppressive and for killjoys, especially sexually. We see the economic aspect of society in Chapter 1 when the boys shoplift because they have no money. The socially deprived underclass is represented by Nigel’s “Parkwood” friends. Class consciousness also emerges as Nigel contemplates Tuck’s mother, a woman from the upper class who marries a “postman (of all things).” (Ch. 4)
The author has included a noticeable representation of Ethnic/Racial minorities in the minor characters: Goodman the British negro, Furio representing Italians, Czcinsk a Polish Jew, and Kenny the Chinese lead guitarist in the band The Lilly Livers. The first three are noticeably tough, branded by society as troublemakers, but from the schoolboys’ point of view this is not necessarily bad. (Ch. 5) Both Goodman and Furio are excellent at rugby and cricket (Ch. 15) and Kenny is an extremely talented musician (Ch. 19). The kind of bigotry these minorities face is disapprovingly depicted in the actions of Chemistry teacher Moxham-Quaife. (Ch. 9)
LGBTIQ commentators will appreciate some of the text. The character Sebastian, a keyboards player, apparently has two lesbian mothers. (Ch. 2) The boys wonder if Sebastian is therefore gay. In this same conversation Nigel interestingly asks his tough friend Andy, “Actually, how do you know if someone is a queer or not? Are there signs?” Of course ‘queer’ comes in many different colours and varieties just like heterosexuality, but the world tends to see them through very narrow stereotypes. In a tongue in cheek parody of this absurdly limited view the author has Andy provide:
“the most damning proof of Sebastian’s latent homosexuality – the town house. All people living in town houses, especially ones on New Road in Chatham must, by default, be gay.”
Be warned though, this is a novel about 1970’s school boys and therefore by necessity is full of homophobic accusations and aspersions.
This is very definitely a novel about males; however, there is a small contingent of female characters who are mostly portrayed in a positive light. Lesley, the drummer Len’s girlfriend, takes a positive role assisting The Loners with her good taste in music. Helen Tooley is an accomplished musician. Becky takes a leading role in a local theatre production. Only Tiffany is portrayed as a pure sex object and ‘bimbo.’ All of these women, even Tiffany, have a mind of their own and spirit. Even Nigel’s mother is a working school teacher, rather than a house wife. Male chauvinism is depicted negatively in the character of Len who acts like he owns Lesley and is very jealous.
The disabled are represented by the character, Terry, a “Parkwood” tough, who because of Thalidomide was born with very short arms. Because of his lower-class background Terry is destined to a not so nice character development, however his disability is represented very positively. (Ch. 1) Nigel emphasises Terry’s positive spirit and what he can achieve rather than what he cannot.
From a psychological perspective we see Nigel’s new friend, Ron Tuck, begin to recover from the grief of his father dying as he socializes with Nigel and becomes active in the project of the band. The author, though, does not draw heavily on this body of knowledge.
As a final word of warning I must note that this novel is about schoolboys and thus has obscenities and minor sexual content. Those easily offended should stay away.
All in all The Loners is a good novel full of fun and with some depth if the reader is willing to look for it. It has much to say about life in England at the end of the 1970’s. It is also an interesting depiction of an adolescent’s life. The first half is particularly excellently written.