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'Shy' follows the interior monologue of a troubled teen boy

Graywolf Press

Max Porter has become something of a patron saint of troubled boys — and of parents under pressure.

Shy is the third and shortest of his trio of largely unplotted, unconventional, neo-modernist novels involving unhappy lads and their stressed parents. It's also his first not to rely on an odd supernatural being to help save the day. (Though a couple of dead badgers play an unusual role in this latest dark scenario.)

In Porter's superb first novel, Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2016), a father and his two young sons are unmoored by the sudden death of their mother. They find consolation in a big black crow that seems to have stepped out of the Ted Hughes poems the father is writing about for a scholarly book. This wise-cracking feathered friend takes up residence — metaphorical residence, at any rate — to help the grieving family navigate their loss.

Grief, which hit the right balance between the heartbreak of a mother's death and Porter's inventive, poetic, sardonic, typographically playful text, was a hard act to follow. Porter's second novel, Lanny (2019), offered an unusual take on an outsider child, a whimsical woodsprite with an affinity for nature who goes missing. It featured a shape-shifting mythical green-leafed pagan spirit named Dead Papa Toothwort who feeds on overheard snippets of the villagers' revealing conversations, which form a symphony of snide insinuations about the boy's mother, in particular.

Shy, which is actually Porter's fourth novel, offers an interior monologue accompanied by another chorus of disapproving voices. (His third, intriguingly titled The Death of Francis Bacon (2021), was not published in the U.S.) Set in 1995, 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 for "some of the most disturbed and violent young offenders in the country."

Among Shy's self-described offenses: "He's sprayed, snorted, smoked, sworn, stolen, cut, punched, run, jumped, crashed an Escort, smashed up a shop, trashed a house, broken a nose, stabbed his stepdad's finger." He's also keyed his mother's car.

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.

Here's how Porter describes the scene at Last Chance: "They each carry a private inner register of who is genuinely not OK, who is liable to go psycho, who is hard, who is a pussy, who is actually alright, and friendship seeps into the gaps of these false registers in unexpected ways, just as hatred does, just as terrible loneliness does."

On the night in question, Shy sneaks out from the musty, haunted old mansion that is soon to be converted into luxury flats. He plods across the dark fields to a duck pond with his Walkman and a spliff, weighed down by a backpack filled with rocks that's cutting painfully into his skinny shoulders. With this "heavy bag of sorry," he's headed toward water that he hopes will obliterate his demons. His life is a train wreck, "tethered to the last mistake, everyone waiting for the next one," and he's had enough.

We hear Shy's tormented inner monologue along the way, a mess of bad memories and worse dreams. Porter writes: "The night is a shattered flicker-drag of these jumbled memories."

Snatches of his therapists' supportive suggestions and questions — "if things are closing in, go to one of your Cheery Thoughts" and "Is it ever exhausting, being you?" — float to the surface, woefully inadequate to the situation. His mother's despairing attempts to get through to him — "But why, but what possessed you, are you hearing me, what's going on with you, why are you doing this to me" — compound his shame and pain. No help: "His stepdad asking when the Jekyll and Hyde shit will end."

Porter, a former literary editor, is a big deal in England, where his books garner more attention than in the U.S. 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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.