A gay British teenager delivers a sniping, witty rant à la Holden Caulfield while undergoing romantic and drug-related misadventures, followed by a mild raft of Life Lessons.
Jarold, or “Jazz,” as he’s dubbed himself, is 16, a minor hellion whose carping, unhappily married parents (“a surreal, toned-down, middle-aged version of Sid and Nancy, minus the heroin”) treat every transgression or departure from so-called normalcy as a sign of doom and an occasion for panicked speechmaking. So when his devout younger sister (“The Nun”) rats him out for picking up men in a gay bar, his home life begins to unravel. And when,accompanied by his sidekick Alice (“Al”), Jazz begins running into one of his teachers at the club, and when Alice decides that the rather dumpy teacher is lonely and begins canvassing the place for dates for him, the troubles mount. It gets worse: Jazz seduces a man who has scruples about Jazz’s age; in disentangling himself from a schoolgirl’s crush, he accidentally outs himself and falls prey to bullies. Davis handles these early pages with sardonic wit and energy, and in a convincing, profane teen argot (no “phonies” in this lingo). And the author wisely soft-pedals the hints of vulnerability. But when a fellow misfit and former semi-friend of Jazz’s named Fabian—who’s graduated to knife-wielding and halfhearted neo-Nazism and showing off ink-pen tattoos to “impressionable molestables” in the schoolyard—first rescues Jazz from the homophobe tough guys and then commits suicide, the tale begins its slide into YA cliché. Suddenly, the narrative is littered with clumsy coincidences, crying jags, therapy sessions. It turns out (gasp!) that Jazz’s irony is a mask, and beneath that mask, tartness and sex and drugs aside, lurks a sensitive soul.
A first novel featuring a truculent, funny adolescent narrator, one that starts well and that augurs well for the career of its young author (born in 1980), but that eventually succumbs to formula.