Sam de Brito’s Lost Boys and the Book Group

Sam de Brito, The Lost Boys (Picador 2008)

lost boysBefore the meeting: Sam de Brito, a Sydney newspaper columnist and blogger, died in October. I don’t know if any of us in the book group had read his columns or his blog, but we decided to read his only novel, The Lost Boys, to honour his passing. It turns out there’s not much honour in it.

It appears to be about a man who, having spent his teenage years drinking, smoking dope and preoccupied with sex and peer-group status, hasn’t changed much in his thirties and hates himself for it. Mysteriously, given the almost total lack of reflectiveness in any of the characters, he also seems to be a writer. For Sam’s sake, I devoutly hope this isn’t substantially autobiographical. I couldn’t bring myself to read the whole thing. I wanted to lay it aside after ten pages but persevered for 60, and seeing no sign of any change, threw in the towel.

Here’s a sample from the post-schoolboy era:

Andrea just watches as we pass the bong around.
– You don’t smoke, Andrea? I ask.
–Not really, not any more, she says. – When I used to live in Indonesia we smoked so much and the stuff you get there, it really had a kick, let me tell you, but the stuff you get here, it’s full of chemicals, it’s not like what we used to get when I lived in Indo.
Fuck, I guess she wants me to ask her about Indonesia, but I can’t be bothered. I’m pretty ripped, so all I can manage is  – Yeah?
– Oh yeah. Once we had this bag of heads, it was like this big.
She makes the shape of it with her hands. Big bag. I nod. She’s got a story to tell. We let her tell it.
– And we smoked joint after joint after joint. No one smokes cones in Indo. And we must have smoked like half of this bag and we were so off our faces we could barely talk.
She starts laughing at the memory. Chong smiles. I wonder if I’m missing something.
–And then we all had these incredible banana smoothies and the next thing we know its morning. All of us fell asleep, just like that. We were so off our faces.
She laughs again. I wait, then realise that’s the story.
Fuck me, chicks really need to go to storytelling school. The first thing they need to learn is it has to have a point of difference: a funny ending, some sort of killer twist. A joke or line. A piece of wisdom.

To be fair, I’m confident that the reader is meant to recognise the sexism there for what it is. To be equally fair, that doesn’t make it any less yukky (or, given the number of excellent books by women I’ve read recently, any less bitterly ironic). But the reason I quote this passage (from page 39) is that it signals that somewhere in the 360-odd pages ‘some sort of killer twist’, even a ‘piece of wisdom’, might emerge from the bleak hedonism of the narrative.

That signal wasn’t enough to keep me reading. Given that the friends who constitute the lost boys of the title are Christian Brothers old boys, perhaps there is an implied piece of wisdom: don’t send your children to Christian Brothers schools if you want them to have any moral compass or cultural ballast. (I spent two unhappy years in a Christian Brothers school myself, but I don’t endorse that message.)

At the meeting:
It was our last meeting for the year. We each brought a wrapped book from our shelves at home and each took one of them home. In addition to this, one chap, who turned 60 this year, brought a number of scrolled slips of paper on which he had printed short poems that, he said, represented the state of his soul this year. We each chose one and then read them out amidst some hilarity and some reflective chat.

We did discuss the book. Not many had finished it. One of the finishers said that he had started out reading it as thinly fictionalised memoir, but about half way through began to think of it as a moral tale: a warning of the dangers of too much drugs and alcohol. Another had been to the same school, drunk when under-age at the same pub, recognised some of the characters. Another said that the book captured for him the way men who have been friends in adolescent sometimes maintain the friendship even though some have gone on to have successful careers while others remain trapped in their adolescent anomie. From each of these I got a sense of the book as almost a tragic documentation of something that’s all too real, a poignant ‘There but for fortune’.

We met in a restaurant, and though we had booked a separate room, water damage from the recent storms meant there were a number of other tables nearby. This meant that any readings from the book had to be bowdlerised. One memorable passage involving a graphic description of coprophagy read by the professional actor kept its power even when bowdlerised, and made me think that perhaps this book would be better heard in company than read on the page: language which on the page is just revolting becomes when read aloud the verbal equivalent of a scene from a Hollywood gross-out comedy.

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