I think it’s in everybody’s best interests for reviewers to confess their prejudices at the outset, so here’s mine: I’m not, generally speaking, particularly enthralled by expletive-laden texts. I typically find such writing more tedious than bold—which probably makes me hopelessly square, but there you have it. I’ll confess that my heart sank a little when I read the first few pages of Kyle Thomas Smith’s 85A. Smith’s debut novel is concerned with Seamus O’Grady, a Holden Caulfieldish figure in late-eighties Chicago, who at the book’s opening is being hounded by a local bully. The bully lurks across the street “all the fuckin’ time.” But the bully didn’t actually drink the whiskey in the bottle he just threw through Seamus’ window, because he’s “too much of a pussy.” Holden Caulfield never talked like this.
But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? Holden wasn’t a punk teenager in the gang-ridden streets of Chicago at the tired end of the eighties, and this novel is so well-written that my quibbles with the language quickly seemed irrelevant. Foul-mouthed or not, the narrative voice rings true. As the book opens, Seamus is waiting for the 85A bus. It’s January 23, 1989, the temperature’s five below zero, and things haven’t been going that well lately. Seamus is fifteen, gay, and hopelessly at odds with the world he finds himself in. He’s disgusted by the racism of his whites-only neighborhood, unable to find a toehold in the local punk scene, persecuted by bullies and rapidly flunking out of St. Xavier, the private school where he hasn’t managed to acquire a single friend.
His homophobic older brother beats him up occasionally, and his parents barely tolerate him. More reasonable parents might be concerned for their son’s safety around the time whiskey bottles start coming through windows, but Seamus’ parents are more inclined to blame their son. “What the hell’s wrong with Seamus,” his father asks his mother, “that he’s getting death threats and you’re getting these calls?”
Seamus is sad, and angry, and mostly alone. His only friend is Tressa, a supremely confident mixed-race prodigy who once saved him from a beating by skinheads. She introduces him to a world beyond the stratified city, the bigotry of his neighborhood, the narrow cliques of his school. She schools him in Mozart and Balzac and Tchaikovsky, Henry Miller and Kafka. Seamus is a gifted writer and actor, intelligent but hopelessly distracted and unable to focus in class, the kind of kid who memorizes Blake poems and writes plays but can’t pass high school English. He idolizes Johnny Rotten and harbors vague dreams of a luminous future: “I hope to be Mozart one day. I mean, I don’t want to compose symphonies or anything. I’m no good at music. … Still, I want to do something like what Mozart did. Sit at a desk, write hour after hour after hour for a living without stopping…” Later, a line that will stay with me for a while: “I’d like to live in dreams.”
Seamus’ dreams involve London, a city he plans on fleeing to as soon as he’s old enough, but as the day of January 23, 1989 progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that he won’t be able to wait that long: the 85A bus is delayed, and he’s late for school. St. Xavier needs only one more infraction to expel him, and this is it. As the day winds down and the expulsion papers are prepared, as his family’s reaction to the expulsion turns to violence, Seamus is forced to prepare for an immediate departure.
The book’s flaws—an over-reliance on expletives, a slight slackening of momentum in the middle stretch, a few too many exclamation marks—seem minor in the final analysis. 85A is blessed with one of the most appealing and unique narrators I’ve come across in fiction in a while. The vivid city of Chicago, with its punks and bohemians, its neighborhoods and graffiti and breathtakingly cold winters, is very nearly a character in itself. This is an exciting and sharply-written debut.