The American scream

RULE OF THE BONE by Russell Banks, Secker pounds 10
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The Independent Culture
MALE American coming-of-age novels - do we need more? Haven't they grown up yet? This new Russell Banks novel comes not only invoking Huck and Holden, but festooned with hype about how it is the "wake-up call to society" that will alert us to "what the West has done to its children". That is a big claim.

Certainly the young protagonist, Chappie (that's his name, which he changes to Bone for obvious reasons) suffers from a job-lot of '90s grievances: father who abandoned him, stepfather who molests him, mother who drinks and ignores him, police and society who don't bother if he keeps a low profile: "If you're not worth the paperwork adults won't hassle you," says Bone.

He responds with a Mohawk hair-do, petty thievery, grass smoking and dealing, tattoos. He moves in with a heavyish gang of bikers, trashes a New England holiday home, steals money from a porn movie pervert and gives his mother one last chance to say the right thing, a test she fails. This is hardly the American dream: crack and apple pie do not mix.

But this narrator, whom Roddy Doyle declares on the cover will stay with him the rest of his life (my condolences), seems to be carrying a very heavy narrative load. First, he's supposed to have mall-cred, so he sometimes sounds like Beavis and Butthead: "the one who said she liked my Mohawk had a Fuck You I'm From Texas tee shirt and no bra so you could see her nipples which was cool..." He has to colour in all the physical descriptions and landscapes, too, so he often seems to be restraining himself from lifting off lyrically. Then there is the social message he is also required to deliver: "I understood how these pissed-off ex-employees or some divorced guy who didn't get child custody can walk into a post office or a Pizza Hut full of people and pull out his heater and start firing." Here is a teenager who thinks like a Newsweek article, even while in the throes of his own dilemma - a youth who discourses on the social implications of what is happening to youth today.

Bone says things like, "Basically people don't know how kids think, I guess they forget," from which one is supposed to infer that Russell Banks is the insightful exception. But to my mind Bone serves too transparently as the author's own frequently didactic mouthpiece.

Then there are the coincidences. We are to accept that Bone, by sheer fluke, heads with his Rastafarian mentor and one true friend, I-Man, to Jamaica, where out of all the mansions in all the world he happens to drift to his own real father's. Is the boy at last to find a relation to love him? No, rich Dad, though he does love Bone on sight, turns out to be a cocaine freak and vicious with it.

The only good guy is I-Man, who takes Bone deep into Jamaican ganja country to help cultivate the next season's crop. All the Rasta lore, dialogue and stoned mellowness give the book a tremendous lift, though the plot drifts off as it seems to come down to a drug-of-choice question: Say no to drink, crack and coke; say Yo to ganja, mon.

Banks is a vivid and humane writer, but pitching this as an antidote to rising teenage homelessness and suicide seems slightly wrong-headed. Scales hardly fall from our eyes at the news that child abuse, broken homes and crime do not constitute ideal nurturing. Bone's voice is engaging but not consistently convincing, and there is a creeping sentimentality abroad. It might also be worth mentioning that any young readers who identify with Bone would not have Banks pulling their strings to stop them at ganja or to draw the right social conclusions about a gun in their hands.