A Goodreads review of Scoundrel Days that I can’t help but crow about . . . I mean, share: (spoiler warning)
This autobiographical tale traces the development of a boy into adulthood and for that reason you could call it a coming-of-age story . However, in Scoundrel Days, most of the genre conventions are turned upside down, and the narrative is so different, it feels more correct to call it an “anti-coming-of-age” story.
I just googled “anti-coming-of-age” and sure enough various critics have used the term to describe a wide variety of stories. I’d like to cautiously propose that in this type of story the protagonist is far less mutable than they have any right to be. Instead they are stubbornly sure of themselves and resistant to change. Rather than stumble with trepidation through their teenage years they seem to bypass puberty entirely and charge into adult situations with an unwarranted confidence.
The Basketball Diaries is a good example of an anti-coming-of-age story (I read this recently). Another example may be “the Catcher in the Rye” (Holden Caulfield is only a school student but frequents bars and passes for an adult). But that’s enough of that, let’s move onto Brentley Frazer (there are spoilers that follow).
Scoundrel Days begins in outback Queensland. Young Frazer grows up with a Police officer for a father and a religious family attached to Christian cult apparently known as “the Friendlies”. From here Frazer moves to Townsville and begins highschool. Incredibly, he loves literature from an early age, and often mentions the books he’s reading – the collected works of Byron among others. It’s not explained how he is exposed to such material. Frazer doesn’t seem to frequent libraries and his attendance at school is rather thin.
Anyway, back to the story. In Townsville he commits petty crimes with a gang of other young teens and makes a close friend: Reuben. Reuben develops into a key character that dominates the first half of the book. Reuben loves fighting, is exceptionally handsome and extremely promiscuous. He is also deeply conflicted and bent on revenge – his uncle abused him as a child, culminating in a savage attack that left his feet scarred and without toes. He also has only one testicle.
Frazer and Reuben have many adventures. Occasionally they aren’t above rolling kids smaller than themselves, despite complaining about the exploitative treatment they themselves receive from society. They also smoke a hell of a lot of cigarettes. So many scenes involve the sharing and smoking of cigarettes that I was surprised they didn’t contract emphysema.
Towards the middle of the book Frazer meets Candy, and she becomes his girlfriend and the key character in the second half of the book. They have a lot of sex, and travel around to Port Moresby, Brisbane and Melbourne. Candy shares her girlfriend with Frazer. It’s clear to the reader that Candy is a rare find. Not only a beautiful, intelligent sex-fiend, but also wealthy, and incredibly – possessed of an unending love and tolerance for a scruffy young poet with no prospects. Frazer however treats her badly. He repeatedly sleeps with her two sisters and cheats on her often.
It almost hurts to read this part. I wanted to reach into the book and brutally slap Frazer. He throws this extraordinary girl away, apparently believing instead in some libertarian code of rotten behaviour. Arguably, this relationship and the failings of the protagonist are the most important part of the story.
Following their split up Frazer returns to Townsville and then Brisbane. He becomes jaded. He hangs out with performance poets, sleeps around a little, but nothing seems fun anymore. Time goes by. It’s not clear how old he is. Presumably many years have passed. The story ends as he falls into what he feels is a different kind of love. He meets a girl called Sunny and he implies he will treat her differently.
This was the best Australian novel I’ve read in a long time. There was a lot here I could relate to. I wanted to give this four and a half stars (but alack that’s not possible in Goodreads). I have deducted points because I often found myself wanting more than the author was giving. I would have liked more description (in a couple of places the poetic description is amazing), and I would have liked just a little more consistency in detail (some years skip by, then we get pages devoted to just a day or two).
There’s a lot of material here and I think the author could easily write further novels based on the same experiences. One novel might focus on Reuben, the second work on Candy (I’d like to see that anyway).
Amazing, crazy tale. Check it out.