There’s a real risk in writing an unreliable main character. When it’s done poorly, it will inevitably make a mess of what might have been a good book. When it’s done well, though – when it’s done well it can make a good story great. I’m pleased to say that Harley Tat, with The New Boy, pulls off the trick quite well.
The New Boy doesn’t waste time getting into the thick of it. It begins with a wild ride to a late-night clinic, to stitch up a nearly-severed tongue, the result of a rugby game that got exceptionally rough for at least one player. Enter Andy Martin, the titular “New Boy” on the team and the owner of the wounded tongue. The journey to the hospital, in a VW driven by a fellow rugby player who we only know as The Troll, sets the tone for the rest of the book – chaos and quick bursts of observation.
Later, after Andy is on the mend, a rugby team party turns into a nightmare when he’s witness to the discovery of a dead body – the first, as it turns out, of many.
This is a book about rugby, and it’s a book about murder. Between those two things alone, it gets pretty violent in these pages. Consider yourself warned.
There are some very nice touches in this book. Setting it in the 1980’s creates an enforced distance from the modern reader, but also a sense of nostalgia for those (yes, like me) who were around in that age of cassette tapes and VCR’s, before cell phones and all things digital. I enjoyed these little notes of recent history, and Tat played them well. Also handled nicely was his sense of place, especially for me. The New Boy is set mainly in Bellingham, Washington, and Tat has spent some time there. He does good work in giving the novel a real sense of place – you feel like you’re not just somewhere random that the author pulled out of a hat, but somewhere in the world, somewhere solid and real.
Where The New Boy is not as strong mostly in Tat’s grasp of dialogue. Conversations often seem stilted, and characters speak more fluidly than might be expected. They’re a little too eager to show off obscure musical knowledge, expounding not only bands but specific performers. They’re a little too descriptive in general, saying more when less would have been more in character. I appreciate descriptive language in a book, but even more I like a good ear for natural dialogue – some of the conversations in The New Boy almost knocked me out of the narrative.
The narrative, though, is compelling. Told in staccato bursts of rugby action, drinking and drugs at college parties, and police procedural, in combination with the increasingly-uncertain memories of Andy Martin, this is a story that really does keep you guessing. So much so, in fact, that it borders on surreal, where some passages seem too strange to have really happened. I found myself questioning the character’s reliability, his sanity, even his grasp on reality as the book progressed.
And I loved that.
The conclusion was satisfying and had a couple nice surprises in store, and even left a few questions unanswered. I appreciate a story that doesn’t spoon-feed you the whole shebang, and Tat leaves just enough up to the reader to keep it interesting, without being frustrating.
Harley Tat deserves credit for taking a risk in the first place with a troubled, unreliable main character and a complex story. And he should be congratulated for mostly pulling it off.
I received a free copy of The New Boy from the author in exchange for reviewing it.