Books: Independent choice

Teens in fiction by Laurence O'Toole
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A new trio of teen-angst fictions continues a recent trend in publishing. Although there's a history of "Juvenile Delinquent" novels - JDs for short - that stretches from the 1950s through writers such as Richard Allen to Hal Ellson, it used to be only pulp publishers that did such things. Recently, however, eminent literary houses have chipped in. The success of the football-hooligan sagas of John King and the chemical fictions of Irvine Welsh made tales of delinquency a staple of many a schedule. This season, there are more hooligans causing a commotion between the covers of literary catalogues than within the gentrified stadia of the Premiership.

Daniel Blythe's The Cut (Penguin, pounds 6.99), concerns rival gangs of middle- class and working-class kids in North Kent. "I want to drink, dance and screw," shouts Bel, "there's not much else to do." As Bel runs amok, her laissez-faire dad states his theory of parenting: "If you want to run away to a commune with the local drug dealer, all I can do is spell out the pros and cons to you and let you choose."

Teen fictions offer to speak for misunderstood youth. Their complaint used to be "you don't understand me". Now, it's more like "please take better care of me". This is less a hankering after material well-being than for moral guidance. Blythe's view seems to be that grown-ups had better shape up to their mentoring responsibilities.

Few of the adults in This River Awakens (Sceptre, pounds 10) cut it as role models. Steve Lundin's tale of young love in 1970s rural Canada is brimful with screwed-up men, from a psychotic mink farmer to a violent patriarch. As the grown-ups toil with demons, the kids go wild on acid, fist fights and sex. During a long hot summer, young lovers Jennifer and Owen experience more upheaval than in a 19th-century Russian novel. Lundin is very good on rituals of teendom, but this soulful novel proves rather airless, stifled perhaps by a desire to be seriously literary.

Another kind of self-consciousness characterises American Skin by Don De Grazia (Cape, pounds 9.99), the most interesting of these novels. When Alex's family is seized from him one cold winter's day, the 17-year-old lights out for the big city. He becomes a factory worker, then joins a commune of streetfighting anti-Nazi skinheads in Chicago. But the violence gets out of hand and Alex is forced into the army, followed by a spell in jail, before things start to work out for him. At first sight De Grazia's novel seems inspired by gang movies like The Wild One to Rumblefish. Thoughts of Huckleberry Finn soon arise; also, far deeper links to the epics of Homer. De Grazia uses the narrative tradition of the roving heroic warrior not as an exercise in style, but to think differently on class, race and - specifically - male identity.

Masculinity and family are the novel's crux. The grand, anti-realist, slightly intoxicated tone of American Skin, the fairytale fragility of its world, mirror the fragility of Alex's sense of self. His epic ascent to manhood finds him shaping his own moral values. Here De Grazia moves beyond both Lumin and Blythe, in showing Alex remaking received ideas. "A kid doesn't care who their family is, so long as they got one," he declares at the close, amid a rainbow coalition of half-siblings and offspring. And you see that maybe he's on to something.

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