Gordon and Gray Morrow are growing up with little sunshine in their lives; rising fast and, inevitably, crooked.
Their parents are on a rolling roster of drunkenness, their best friends are a bunch of scruffs, their town chromosomally challenged.
They live with their "homies" on a bank of the Bremer River in Ipswich, where they think of themselves as "born to no one, known to no one".
The boys dream of turning their backs on this life but their plans are waylaid first by a violent crime and then by the self-serving actions of a bent detective constable.
We are led through the story by the crippled and asthma-afflicted younger brother, Gray, on whose slight shoulders rests the brothers' only hope of escape.
As you might expect, As If! is a read full of grit, and light on hope. It is necessary and illuminating and valuable, not least because it is set in and around Brisbane's back yard.
It is compelling, because author Barry Levy writes well and pegs his fiction to observations made when he was a reporter for the daily newspaper in Ipswich in the late '80s and early '90s.
A series of feature articles he wrote on homelessness during that time put him in the running for a Walkley Award. He holds an Australian Human Rights Commission award and an Anning Barton award for regional journalism on social issues.
Despite this, there are times where the novel's symbolism weighs too heavily, and the characters' words ring a little hollow.
Overlook these distractions, however, and you'll be rewarded with an insight into a subculture whose presence is often felt by society at large, but whose voice is rarely heard.
– Sharon Doyle, The Courier-Mail
Former QueenslandTimes feature writer Barry Levy has penned his second fictional novel delving into youth homelessness in Ipswich.
AsIf! moves between the fringe city of Ipswich and affluent Brisbane. Characters include Ruth Hannah, the shelter supervisor who offers support to the kids but who has her own past to contend with, and the Juvenile Aid Bureau’s Senior Detective Constable Watno Thornes, who tries to befriend the kids but lives with a dark agenda in the back of his mind.
The teenagers in the novel jump off the page.
From the intelligent but physically abused Gray Morrow, to his heroic but temperamental older brother, Gordon, and his tragic relationship with the city-wise but sexually abused Dusty Jones, this is a world many of us fail to recognise as very much our own.
Often dark and sometimes cold, bloody and brutal, it is also filled with pathos, love and humanity.
– Josephine Gillespie, The Queensland Times
This book is a good read for those sensible enough to buy it. It is racy, with a pace reminiscent of an early Henry Miller, getting you involved in its poetically drawn world, and then lulling you into a sense of complacency, when WHAM, it hits you that this is no ordinary novel, something to be evidenced in both the content and style of writing as much as the universal themes of love, loss and need that are so brilliantly portrayed through the energetically alive, complex and richly drawn characters.
– Dr Robert Schweitzer, Associate Professor in Psychology, Queensland University of Technology
This novel is set in Ipswich, the satellite town situated west of Brisbane on the banks of the Bremer River. Levy writes pithily and well about his characters, and we are drawn unwillingly into the horrors of their adolescent world - a world of alcohol, drugs and vandalism, where disenchanted youth congregate under bridges, avoid attending school, and become involved in random destruction for its own sake. The parents of Gray and Gordon Morrow, and the brittle Dusty Jones, are neglectful, self-obsessed, ill-educated, and physically and/or sexually abusive towards the young people in their care. The teenagers respond with alienated behaviour that threatens to ruin their young lives before they've even begun.
The character of Gray Morrow provides a window into this world. The teenager has been crippled from an unwarranted and vicious beating by his biological father, who has then abandoned his family. Gray suffers from severe asthma. He is frail and frightened, but also astute, perceptive and deeply feeling - a memorable character with a unique way of seeing the world around him. He looks up to his older brother, Gordon, an out-of-control thug, who frequently takes Gray out on his motorbike to Mount Moon, the only place they have to escape from their chaotic home life and find any kind of short-lived peace. Their mother's new boyfriend, Mick, treats the youths with contempt, turfing them out of their rooms for visitors, and generally behaving in a hostile, aggressive manner. Alcohol is a catalyst for family violence. Most of the adults in this novel are as childish and irresponsible as the teenagers.
Levy paints a realistic picture of what life is like for this generation of neglected youngsters, and it's a bleak picture indeed. Bored, promiscuous, and frequently high on drugs and booze, they break into houses in groups to steal and vandalise. They are so disconnected from society that they feel no empathy for their victims, or shame over their actions. They act with a sense of entitlement made poignant by the fact that they have few rights, even within their own families, and little to look forward to.
One ray of hope is Ruth Hannah, an older woman who operates a shelter for wayward and homeless youth. Ruth is the only solid parental figure in their world, but her efforts to provide solace and sanctuary are brought down by a bureaucracy that demands qualifications she does not possess, leading to a public shaming that horrifies the loyal young people she has been trying to help. Detective Constable Watno Thornes from the Juvenile Aid Bureau makes some attempts to influence the Morrow boys to change their ways and create a worthwhile life, but this early portrait of police kindness proves to be false. Thornes turns out to be an opportunistic bully, and the feisty young girl Dusty becomes his victim when she refuses to provide him with sexual favours and is beaten to death in a back alley. Gray witnesses this horrendous act of violence, and this destroys whatever respect he and Gordon may have had left for authority and leads to further violence.
As If! presents a sad and all-too-common scenario for which there are no easy answers. It is memorable, disturbing, frightening and certainly not pleasant to read, but its realism cannot be denied.
- Liz Hall-Downs, Compulsive Reader
[Read More on Google BookSearch]
Feature article on Barry in Suite 101 (South Africa) blog
In the cold wind there is no choice but for Gordon and me to spend a night with the kids out here, in the stroking but uncaring breeze, while Mick and Mum cool off, sort through another lost Saturday night. Everything so dark and groggy.
We seek them out, our homies, our bros, under the bridge, by the river in the Ipswich dark, and then as if of one large mind, like a single huge brain cell, hungry and in search of things to do we go seeking through the suburbs looking to fill our bellies and have some good, honest to God fun. Scouring the neighbourhood for targets.
And now we are here, all of us kids, in the blackness of someone else’s home, afraid to switch on the lights, but warm and comfortable in a way we can’t be in our own artificially lit homes. Seeing for the thousandth time that we have eyes that can see in the dark. Yes, it is true. It is the way we grew up. We did not need chandeliers or bed lights or even torches. We were brought up as marsupials. Our lives were the night. We bathed in it, drank in it, shat in it, ate in it. And it gives us a paradoxical kind of freedom. A kind of control. Superiority over our superiors. They say that you need light to dispel darkness. But the reality, we have found, is the other way around. Freedom lies in darkness, under covers, far from the seeing eye, from the light of day. Darkness dispels reality, the imprisonment that day imposes, that keeps you scattered, skulking, out of shit, out of the way. Darkness, as me and Gordon and the rest have found and see now, gives you a bond, like a huge connecting shadow, like right now in this house, in this rich, middle class home, no this palace, this palace filled with security and fermented spirits and chandeliers and books—books that we will never read, books that we can tear out of their shelves and covers and throw to the ground, books that we can rip into shreds without giving it a second thought, books that we can destroy to teach our teachers, our parents, city aldermen, state authorities, government handlers, supervisors, yes, all the supervisors of the world, imposed on us, who think we are just hoons, scum, dirty gravel of the earth.
Yes, we are all of those things: dirty, brown, thick gravel; we have been told so many times, even in the mess of our own grey-brown homes, and yet it is like a song, a requiem, a top of the pops blockbuster, a hip-hop street poem that fires our blood, that lights our minds with neon dreams, this drinking rich people’s grog, slinging their books and plates and vases across shiny lounge floors, ripping with pen-knives and bread knives into soft, tempting couches that you want to sleep on, so desperately want to rest your head and sleep on, that you want to spend your entire life on, that you want to die on. Yes, it is like a heavy metal, twisted steel guitar that sings inside you, that makes you feel kind of full, alive. Worth something at last. That makes you dance an Irish fling with Gordon, your brother, who has saved you yet again.
And I am singing, I think even with him hearing me, ‘Thank you, buddy. Thank you, bro.’
And he is swinging me round him, like when we were kids, except our own lounge was never quite big enough, right in the thick of this lusciousness, this impromptu Saturday night party that began with the promise of a family night of pizza and videos, and ends with this—me letting him pour a drink of something that cuts like razors down my shaking throat, seeing the curtains in front of me coming down, falling, tumbling on our heads. Ripped loose like falling screws from the walls, eight-foot high, at least, feeling that pure soft satin finish flouncing round my head, the kids in this new covered warmth embracing me in laughter, soft then loud, bowel biting, angry. But close, comforting.
Me, Gordon, Jamie, Kelly, clutching onto one another, hugging like children in movies of Christmas morning, a family, a happy family beneath these drapes. We, a family sheltering in that light that only darkness can bring, that special uninhibited intimacy, the dark glue that casts us together. Brings joy to the world. Lights up trees. And streets. And other people’s rooms.