Boy talk

16th May 2003 at 01:00
CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

Doing It. By Melvin Burgess. Andersen Press pound;10.99.

The Last Virgin. By David Belbin. Hodder pound;4.99.

Bad Boys. By Tony Bradman. Corgi pound;4.99.

Inventing Elliot. By Graham Gardner. Orion Children's Books pound;7.99

Last Chance. By Patrick Cave. Oxford University Press pound;4.99.

How to Train your Parents. By Pete Johnson. Corgi pound;4.99.

Fiction that claims to tap into the teenage male's mind, reviewed by Victoria Neumark.

What are teenage boys made of? Is it snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails like the old rhyme or, as Melvin Burgess would have us believe, something more phallic? How demeaning, I feel, as a mother of three sons, to reduce all that energy, questioning, humour and obsession to a few stains on the sheets. But it's what much fiction for teenage boys seems to do: take one dimension of existence (bullying in Inventing Elliot, football in Bad Boys) and pursue it relentlessly.

Melvin Burgess once must have been a teenager, but phrases likening a character's Knobby Knobster to a concrete pillar, while good for an uneasy laugh, seem to have little to do with experience. The sex scenes in his disappointing saga seem to lack essential ingredients (desire and pleasure) despite the wealth of slang terms and physical dimensions.

I ran the book past four teenage males. They disliked it on the grounds that (a) "it makes boys out to be dickheads, literally, their heads are in their dicks"; (b) "the writer must be really old, no one talks like that any more. I mean, discos?" and (c) "It makes sex seem pretty rubbish." They were also amused by the idea that some critics consider Doing It pornographic. "You don't read books for porn. You buy magazines or go on the net."

In David Belbin's The Last Virgin, six girls all want to get rid of their virginity before they are 16: by the end of the book all but one have. The message boys will derive from this book is that girls are mostly gagging for it, even if they do waffle on about relationships. However, like Burgess's novel, it skirts the unwelcome truth that boys also need relationships; whereas the girls do entertain other sides to life such as education and family, the boys are slavering with frustration most of the time. The Last Virgin is better written than Doing It, but Belbin's female characters are not nearly preoccupied enough by their appearance, their relationships with each other and the awfulness of boys.

Sport and bullying have been teen male preoccupations since Thomas Arnold founded school sport at Rugby: Bad Boys and Inventing Elliot bring them up to date. Bad Boys is good locker-room-and-pitch drama about growing up and vying for status in the football team and at home. In the end, not necessarily like life, decency prevails. Lee goes back to playing defence, Jason gets kicked out of the team and posh Ben realises that he can be accepted as one of the lads as he is a talented midfielder.

It's always easier if you are a talented midfielder, as Graham Gardner's Elliot knows only too well. In this creepy but compelling first novel about a secret society of bullies which runs a school for its own sadistic pleasure, Elliot is the new boy who hides his own weakness to join the Guardians. But he falls in love and ultimately finds the courage to split on them. Gardner is a talented writer; Inventing Elliot is a troubling, raw book.

Julian, hero of Last Chance, is altogether tougher. A mixed-race boy and a star runner, he's been left in sole charge of his twin six-year-old half-sisters by his distant dad. He's also discovered a fiendish plot by the manufacturers of a cult toy. Quite a lot for one 15-year-old to cope with, but Julian does cope, in a satisfyingly fantastic way, which seems to veer between the commonplace and the stuff of science fiction (the plot involves chemicals running amok in the Millennium Dome). But the details are solidly drawn.

Finally, and with a huge sigh of relief, see Pete Johnson's How to Train your Parents for the answer to what makes younger teenage boys tick.

Johnson's comic romp through a miserable school year in the life of almost 13-year-old Louis touches all the real bases of adolescent boys' lives: girls, parents, TV, comedy. Louis wants to be a stand-up comic and enjoy life, but his parents have more ambitious plans. They lose, however. Phew.

He'd like to get a girlfriend, and he does. Double phew. That wasn't so angst-ridden, was it?

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