When I was in middle school, I was haunted by the Boomtown Rats’ song “I Don’t Like Mondays.” A local radio station in Atlanta played the song every Monday morning, and it would remind me of dreary weeks at school and what I thought was my sad, inevitable march toward adulthood. The song features a chorus demanding an explanation from a young girl who is unable to make herself understood (“Tell me why!”). I didn’t know, at the time, the song was inspired by a school shooting, but I could tell it was about something tragic. Garfield also didn’t like Mondays, after all, but he just made jokes about it.
I thought of the Boomtown Rats’ song several times when reading Max Porter’s new book Shy, which focuses on a 15-year-old boy named Shy who sneaks out of Last Chance, a school for troubled boys, in the middle of the night in 1995. Various kinds of trouble have landed Shy at Last Chance. He’s “sprayed, snorted, smoked, sworn, stolen, cut, punched, run, jumped, crashed an Escort, smashed up a shop, trashed a house, broken a nose, [and] stabbed his stepdad’s finger.” When he sneaks out of the school, he has a backpack full of heavy stones and is headed to the local pond. When he thinks “Later, wankers” on his way out, we understand that this is the last time he expects to tell his housemates goodbye.
Shy doesn’t shoot up any schools in the novel but that might just be a result of living in England rather than the US, since he does engage in several senseless acts of violence. At one point, he recalls stabbing his supportive stepfather in the finger when his stepfather was lecturing him about his behavior. He also remembers suffering a sudden panic attack while having sex with a girl and punching her leg as hard as he can. He feels bad about this behavior but he can’t explain it to his teachers or anyone else. His explanation for stabbing his stepfather, for example: “I was in a mood.”
The novel presents glimmers of hope that Shy can achieve a better, more stable relationship with the world. He feels “sort of sorry” after destroying his parents’ friends’ house. He knows that he behaved terribly with his girlfriend. At one point towards the middle of the novel, the narrator notes that the boys at Last Chance are “getting better at telling their stories,” and the narrative structure supports this. Broadly speaking, Shy consists of several overlapping voices separated by different typefaces and positioning on the page. Many of these voices are accusatory thoughts or questions that Shy can’t make sense of, like “Is it ever exhausting, being you?” or “If you feel like an idiot, perhaps stop behaving like one.” But longer, narrated scenes show Shy beginning to piece his life together. Maybe even achieving a kind of understanding.
On the other hand, the novel’s primary narrative voice tends to romanticize Shy’s struggles. His natural surroundings are frequently personified in ways that make Shy’s walk seems like a magical adventure: “The grass in the next field whispers. The moon is stalking. Judging.” The invented language suggests that Shy’s troubles come with creative possibility: “the night is a shattered flicker-drag of these sense-jumbled memories.” I won’t give too much away about the ending, but it won’t surprise anyone who’s read Porter’s other novels to know that it’s a happy one, despite what seems like Shy’s limited development during the book.
Shy is Porter’s fourth novel, and two of his previous three have been in direct dialogue with other artists. His first, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, imagined the crow from Ted Hughes’ poetry sequence moving in with a family in mourning. His third, The Death of Francis Bacon, imagines the painter’s final days through a verbal transcription of seven “written pictures.” In his second and best novel to date, Lanny, Porter tells the story of a precocious boy and his family in a village outside London but sets this story against another involving a fantastical forest creature named Dead Papa Toothwort who feasts on the English language.
Shy is not explicitly in dialogue with other artists and it does not set its central narrative against a second imaginary tale. But the book’s language and imagery recall Seamus Heaney’s poetry throughout, for example when Porter describes the pond water as “oily and sharp,” or when he evokes the sounds of the pond by referencing “little trickles and lapping drip-plop sounds from the wading body in the water.” Language like this would fit perfectly in Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist. At one point, Porter seems to reference Heaney’s poems from North directly when Shy wonders if he sees “bog beasts” in the water.
Heaney’s poem “The Badgers,” from his 1979 collection Field Work, speaks especially well with Porter’s novel, not only because badgers play an important role in Shy but also because of the poem’s themes. In Heaney’s poem, the speaker and a companion speculate on what it means that badgers have returned to the area in which they live. The companion suggests that the badgers are spirits of murder victims, but the speaker wonders whether it could be “some violent, shattered boy” returning to investigate how his life got torn apart. The speaker notes that neighbors are honored by the badgers’ presence, but also that his confusion about their presence has made him afraid. This builds to the poem’s closing stanza, which opens by asking “How perilous is it to choose / not to love the life we’re shown?” before closing with five lines where the poem’s language gets as close as possible to badgers’ physical reality: “his sturdy dirty body / and interloping grovel. / The intelligence in his bone.” We’re left, as in many of Heaney’s poems, recognizing our distance from the natural world but also appreciating that distance makes interaction possible.
Heaney’s central question—”How perilous is it to choose not to love the life we’re shown?”—is also Shy’s. How perilous is it to choose not to love broken teenage boys, or to think that their brokenness is somehow unimportant? What happens if we choose to love them, or to take their struggles seriously? These are essential questions and I’m glad Shy asks them. But I wonder about its responses. To be specific, I wonder if the novel ends up loving its own responses too much. Maybe even more than Shy himself.
By Max Porter
Published on May 2, 2023
I teach English composition and literature at the University of Pittsburgh. I also review books for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Boston Globe, among others.