In conjuring an adolescent burnout, Anwyll might have taken cues from the slacker canon of westward-slouching beatniks and Kevin Smith antiheroes. Instead, his Stan Acker assumes the lineage of J.P. Donleavy’s Sebastian Dangerfield and John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius Reilly—although the comedy of Welfare is, by necessity, comparatively muted. A values-neutral indigent, Acker is a reflecting pool of human nature and dysfunctional institutions, casting their vagaries in grisly magnification. Where a more romantic ne’er-do-well might be afforded a comeuppance or redemption, Stan’s coming-of-age is precluded by the immediate needs of survival. Welfare evokes poverty as a trial of rote drudgeries ... Anwyll’s rhythmic prose is constructed of staccato, bullet-point sentences ... While the most self-pitying of Stan’s monologues approach melodramatic balladry, his penetrating observations of forlorn peers yield acute insights ... Welfare is a relentless Sinclairian censure, exposing a society so fundamentally broken that full-scale upheaval seems the only solution.
Now, let’s look at this book for what it is: a debut novel about a man teetering on that edge between child and adult, meandering jobless, getting high, making witty/cynical observations on a world he’s too young and ignorant to comprehend yet. It’s a story or trope or whatever-you-want-to-call-it that’s been told so many times before, it could be its own genre. Most of the time, yeah, these kinds of stories are so lifeless and whiney that you feel like picking up a blunt instrument and seeking vengeance for the trees who gave their lives for such mediocrity to exist on paper. What separates Welfare, though—and this is a testament to the skill of the author—is its honesty, its heart, and its careful balance between detachment from and immersion in the world of these young bums. It’s written in a way that your judgments of the characters are entirely your own. The narrator barely tries to defend his actions, while simultaneously avoiding too much self-deprecation ... Another thing Welfare has going for it is its level of authenticity. It feels like it was written by a seventeen-year-old boy, and that’s as scary as it is impressive ... Every sentence, every paragraph, has a rhythm to it … it’s not as beige as Tao Lin, or quite as quip-filled and minimalist as Sam Pink. It’s close to being Bukowski’s blue-collar matter-of-factness ... Anwyll has got a unique, approachable voice.
Anwyll’s coming-of-age novel sometimes reads more like sociopolitical allegory, but the authenticity of its first-person voice, and of its plot, which moves in deliberate, subtle steps, immerses the reader in Stan’s struggles. Stan’s story resonates with relevance and heart.