Grab Onto Me Tightly As If I Knew The Way by Bryan Charles

What I like about half price book sales in any of the stores which I frequent is the opportunity to buy twice the amount of books but part with the same amount of money. Bliss. What this also means is that because the cost of the book is minimal, you can experiment with your choices: books that would previously be bypassed by some internal reckoning on your part can be flung with wild abandon into your cart with no guilt at all.

That is how I ended up with Bryan Charles and the book with the longest title that I may ever have read.

Described as a “wise, bighearted and hilarious look at one teenager’s life”, I have to say that I was drawn to it. Who doesn’t want hilarity in the rather sobering times in which we currently live? Laughing hysterically has to be better than feeling hysterical. Also, it is set in the early nineties when Kurt Cobain was setting the world alight or maybe greasing it up a little with the grungy sound of Nevermind and I was a young woman, heading to university with idealism and naïvety as my companions. I have to say that I was quite looking forward to being transported back accompanied by Vim Sweeney, the narrator to once more dip my toe into the heady days of less wrinkles, later nights and more angst.

But I’m afraid it didn’t live up to my expectations. I was sad about this.

Vim is 17 and is trying to figure out life as most teenagers are. He is in a band called Judy Lumpers with his friends, Wheeler and Jake; he has a job washing dishes at a local eatery; he lives with his mum and step-dad, Ed; his father left them when he was a baby and he has unresolved issues with that; he is falling in love with Wheeler’s girlfriend Hélène who likes to read Naked Lunch and cut herself.

The book is about Vim, real name Vincent, trying to sort through all of these things, blundering about, getting drunk, running away, sorting through his thoughts and generally, getting himself into a right old tangle.

There is the normal partying and kissing and philosophising that goes with all of this, the musings told in some passages of unpunctuated stream of consciousness stuff which is meant to be random confusion and a reflection of his unsettled state of mind but to me read like indecipherable nonsense.

It wasn’t all bad; Charles’ writing could be quite lyrical at times and the bits where he’s describing what Vim is doing in bar encounters and with his uncle and his girlfriend are nicely evoked. The references to the music of the 1990s eased my need for nostalgia so that was all fine too. Also, the way that it was structured with short numbered sections in linear order, some of them mere lines long, meant that this was very easy and short reading.

However, I think that if you are reading a review where focus is given to the shortness of the sections that tells you a lot about the book. Also, some of Vim’s statements could be quite crass, perhaps meant to be indicative of a 17 year old with their sense of rebelliousness, challenging conventions and devil-may-care view of the world but it’s not really my thing. Maybe these were the parts that were hilarious and maybe I am the wrong audience for this book.

Vim does manage to sort out his problems to a degree and develops a level of maturity as the book progresses. His realisation that Ed in comparison with his birth father has probably been a far better role model and paternal figure is touching as is his apology to Wheeler for his off-the-wall behaviour towards him and Hélène – these were my favourite moments in the book: Vim looks outside of himself for a change, sees how his behaviour affects others and makes right on it, all very adult.

And the book reaches a satisfactory conclusion which I am always happy about.

So, will I read any more Bryan Charles? Probably not, no. I can see the merit in it and I can see that there will be people who will enjoy his fiction and his style. But not me. In fact, I got more consistent enjoyment out of reading the authorial background and thinking at the end of the book than I did out of the novel which may say more about me than it does about the novel.

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