It’s impossible to overemphasize the acclaim and hype that surrounded Joel Hynes’ first novel, Down to the Dirt, here in the Newfoundland literary community (for more on the incestuous politics of literary communities and the nasty emotions they breed, see my next review). This brash bad-boy novel has such a tang of raw, honest firsthand experience that some people have suggested it should have been a memoir instead. Fortunately, Joel Hynes is a little smarter than James Frey — he calls his books novels, which leaves him free to embellish incidents and characdter as he wishes while still drawing from the deep well of personal experience. And the water he draws from there is brackish and dirty, to be sure, but also bracing and strangely refreshing — at least in small doses.
What Hynes does best is voice — particularly the voice of Down to the Dirt‘s main character, Keith Kavanagh. It should come as no surprise to learn that Down to the Dirt was a play before it was a novel (it’s a movie too, now), or that Hynes shines at readings, because his ability to capture the voice of a nihilistic, narcissistic, self-destructive young male transplanted from a Southern Shore outport to downtown St. John’s, is flawless. Keith’s inner and outer worlds of alcoholism, drugs, sex, and despair are completely believable, and the book ends with only the faintest hint of a hope for redemption, enough to keep the reader from running out and slitting her wrists but not enough to suggest that “happily ever after” is anywhere on Keith’s horizon.
The only false steps in the novel, I think, come in the occasional chapters where the point of view shifts to Keith’s girlfriend Natasha or his best friend Andy. Neither voice is as convincing as Keith’s, and I was so caught up in Keith’s narrative that the change in point of view took me off guard and annoyed me — I wanted to get back to Keith.
I read Hynes’ second novel, Right Away Monday, immediately after Down to the Dirt, which in retrospect was probably a mistake. It’s set in the same world of seedy downtown bars populated by artists, addicts and losers, but this time the main character is Clayton Reid. Clayton comes from the Southern Shore — like Keith Kavanagh — and is an alcoholic and drug user with vague hopes of a career in the arts but too little focus or direction to pursue it — also like Keith. He is profane, witty, depressed, self-destructive, and doomed to a string of unsatisfying sexual liasons with various women as doomed as he is. Just like Keith Kavanagh. In fact, the great weakness of Right Away Monday is that if you make the mistake of reading it right after Down to the Dirt, you may come away feeling as if you’ve read the same story twice.
Clayton’s voice is just as strong and well-rendered as Keith’s is, and it is exactly the same voice — down to the same turns of phrase and the same dialect. In Right Away Monday, too, we get occasional slips into the point of view of other characters, and as in Down to the Dirt, these are never as successful, but serve only to distract from the power of Clayton’s monologue. The only real innovation in Right Away Monday is the introduction of Clayton’s uncle Valentine Reid, a famous, celebrated, and horrifically screwed-up Newfoundland singer-songwriter (I’m usually the last to catch on to in-group literary gossip, etc., but even I would have to have been comatose to have lived here all my life and not caught the clef to this particular roman — once again, Hynes is obviously making good use of personal experience, and once again it’s a good thing he chooses to label his work as “novel” rather than the memoir he could just as easily have called it).
If anything, Right Away Monday may be an even stronger novel than Down to the Dirt, but it’s inevitable that it will suffer by comparison to Hynes’ first book, not because the author has gone into a “sophomore slump” and failed to maintain his quality but because readers may feel (at least, I did) as if Hynes has only one story to tell, one voice to speak with, and wonder whether he plans to tell that same story in that same voice over and over. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for a writer to go back and plow the same ground over and over — but the reader hopes that he will bring forth something new each time, and I’m not convinced Hynes did that in Right Away Monday.
If you dislike profanity, drug use and sex in novels, please do yourself a favour and avoid Joel Hynes’ books like the plague. If you don’t mind those things, and you like to hear a dark story told in a strong and compelling voice, then by all means read one or the other of Down to the Dirt or Right Away Monday. But don’t read both — at least, not back to back. Choose one, read it, admire Joel Hynes’ skill, and then sit back and hope he has the ability to surprise us with his third book.