This is the story of a few strange hours in the life of a troubled teenage boy. You mustn't do that to yourself Shy. You mustn't hurt yourself like that. He is wandering into the night listening to the voices in his head: his teachers, his parents, the people he has hurt and the people who are trying to love him. Got your special meds, nutcase? He is escaping Last Chance, a home for "very disturbed young men," and walking into the haunted space between his night terrors, his past, and the heavy question of his future.
Shy’s disordered, multidimensional consciousness careens through Max Porter’s brief and brilliant fourth book, a bravura, extended-mix of a novel that skitters, pulses, fractures and coalesces again with all the exhilaration and doom of broken beats and heavy bass lines. It’s best read in one deranging sitting. The ostensible setting is an institution called Last Chance, a boarding school for troubled boys in a dilapidated old house in the countryside. With uncharacteristically printable eloquence, the usually profane Shy sees the building as being 'hunched over the garden like a chunk of grumpy history.' Despite the best efforts of the saintly-patient staff, it’s a grim place, not least because 'the boys just rip and rip at each other, endless patterns of attack and response, like flirting’s grim twin.' The book’s true setting, however, is the sprawling, shifting terrain of Shy’s mind. Though the novel’s time frame is just a few hours of one night, it’s a night of 'a shattered flicker-drag of these sense-jumbled memories' and one in which 'the solid world dissolves then coheres like broken sleep, and he shambles into it, remembering.' In other words, the night’s as big as Shy’s life ... He’s both a hapless, hurting child and a dangerous, violent young man, and his author has loved each part of him into being with the same steady attention ... This is, however, an ultimately optimistic book, even if saying so risks casting a slick of the sentimental over a work so admirably grounded. I won’t unsee that sheet of blood, but nor will I unsee a comic, charismatic, deplorable, lovable, still living and not-entirely-hopeless boy doing a little dance by himself, headphones on, at 3 a.m., to an audience of two dead badgers.
Shy captures a harrowing night in the life of an out of control 16-year-old called Shy who's been sent to the Last Chance boarding school ... This is one angry young man. But Porter's compulsively readable primal scream of a novel offers a compassionate portrait of boy jerked around by uncontrollable mood swings that lead to self-sabotaging decisions ... While hailed for his originality and compassion, he has also been criticized for sentimentality. Without giving away too much, I can say that amid its clanging 90s soundtrack Shy, too, works toward a note of harmonious hope which I, for one, welcomed. However tenuous, it gives readers a life preserver to grab onto.
Porter is interested in the border between boyish anarchy and real darkness ... His books intertwine two characteristically British genres: the delinquent-youth novel...and the magical-child novel ... Porter’s gift is his ability to balance a delight in language with precise attention to its mechanics. He works in two primary modes: the descriptive and the affirmative ... His prose throws off its fidelity to realism: characters revel in something beautiful, or in an intense feeling or sensation, or they get stoned and confess their sincere love to a spliff ... Porter uses both modes, description and affirmation, to capture the two sides of Shy’s character—his sensitivity and his impulsive destructiveness. His life is a needle quivering between two poles, the future yawning in irreconcilable directions ... Porter has toggled for pages between social realism and fairy tale, description and wish fulfillment, but he finally waves aside the juvenile-delinquent narrative in order to cast Shy as a magical boy whose sensitivity is his salvation. Yet, for most of the novel, Porter holds his opposites in perfect suspension.