Sunday, October 30, 2011

Youers, End Times (2010)

Rio Youers, End Times. PS Publishing, 2010. Pp. 235. ISBN 978-1-848631-00-7. £20.00 / $31.00.

Reviewed by Nathan Lea

End Times, published by PS Publishing, is the first novel by Amersham-born Rio Youers, the author of several short stories (including ‘The Ghost of Lillian Bliss’ published in The New and Perfect Man and ‘Quoth the Rock Star’ published in Required Reading Remixed Volume 1), and two novellas: Mama Fish and the 2010 British Fantasy Award nominee Old Man Scratch. PSP have also recently published his short story collection Dark Dreams, Pale Horses. Youers has won critical acclaim for his work: New York Times bestselling author Peter Straub believes that “Rio Youers is one of the most vital, most exciting young talents to come along in this decade”, whilst Horror Drive-In’s Mark Sieber lists him amongst his favourite authors after reading Mama Fish, counting him among “guys that knock your socks right the fuck off of your feet...”

End Times describes the journey of Scott Hennessey, a self-mutilated, relapsing cocaine addict, from his drug-addled life as a writer for a local paper to the fulfilment of his destiny as a fundamental participant in the realisation of an American Indian prophecy. This journey, narrated for the most part by Hennessey himself, is punctuated by his need to indulge his reckless desire, which becomes managed through time spent with a mysterious love interest, a woman who becomes the embodiment of his new-found peace and contentment, and his long-time best friend and confidante, Sebastian Cross, a survivor of a fatal joy-riding accident that left the driver dead and Cross a paraplegic; both of these characters form the foundations of Hennessey’s life and ultimately, end times. On starting to read the book, armed with the ill-advised yet inevitable judgment of the book’s cover and its summary, and given the other topics that Youers’ work seems to focus on, I wondered pessimistically what this spiritual, psychological thriller would deliver: would this be a story that employed a plethora of dark subject matter for the sake of it to the point that it undermined the quality of the end result?

Despite the predictability of Cross’ fate and occasional blandness in writing style where the narrative lapses into seemingly lengthy descriptions that read like they belonged in a surveyor’s report, I cannot praise this work more highly: the account is sensitive, detailed, compelling, honest and sometimes heart-wrending: Hennessey’s experience of living on the street is galling, and the death of a homeless companion is tenderly and poignantly described; the meeting where he admits his guilt to the elderly, frail Luther Big Crow, father of a girl that he had assaulted with a group of cult members, is relayed so honestly that it leaves a swell of ache and pity for not only Big Crow, but also Hennessey. The use of contrast in this work is superbly executed—the harsh, grim reality of living with addiction, guilt, self-mutilation and loathing is juxtaposed with an honest, self critical consideration as the narrator recounts his story. Always clear, personal and believable, the tale is riveting, often exciting and, at times, terrifying.

Youers masters tone and character superbly: as Hennessey’s character remembers dealing with going cold turkey, the tone shifts to a visceral, engulfing and utterly believable mania; where the narration shifts from Hennessey to other characters, it is remarkably and deftly altered. The depth of Hennessey’s character is matched by that of Cross, the ageing Big Crow, Joseph Dreaming Bear, a companion and confidante for Hennessey when he comes to Pine Ridge, and Jimmy High Pipe, an eccentric Elvis Presley fan who dresses as the singer, but slips into his role as a medicine man with striking suddenness as he uses his skills to empower Hennessey to confront and overpower his addiction.

These intense concepts, characters and issues are well supported by a streak of subtle humour peppered throughout the narrative: from the antics of Dreaming Bear and High Pipe to Hennessey’s own dry sense of humour, this proves to be a much needed, uncontrived facet of this novel. There is also a refreshing linearity to this work, which helps to accentuate the narrative and journey. I also felt the cynic in me occasionally tickled—sometimes wanting to dismiss Hennessey’s journey as self-induced and not something that I felt I should be taking so much interest in. But these moments were rare: for all the wickedness, selfishness and stupidity that a harsher reader might see in Hennessey and Cross, I liked these people. I felt enormous sympathy for them and truly wanted them to find the peace and contentment that they had hitherto lacked, and which the Oglala Sioux characters seemed to have in abundance, despite their personal pain and dire circumstances.

Mindful of my initial uncertainties prior to completing the novel, I am delighted to be reminded that you should never judge a book by its cover. End Times expertly handles difficult, profoundly dark and very real issues, tying them in to a narrative that includes a well-structured story and believable, compelling and loveable characters; it serves as a voice for the ancient, vibrant American Indian culture and people, telling their story as it is and allowing the reader to infer their own thoughts and feelings on their situation. Nothing in this novel is irrelevant, out of place or laboured, or pressures the reader to think or feel anything other than what they want to. For these reasons I recommend this book: it certainly offers scope and material for thought, informed discussion and self-reflection.

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