Carl Shuker has observed that The Lazy Boys, his second novel, after The Method Actors, winner of the 2006 Prize in Modern Letters, tends to be reviewed quite differently inside New Zealand than outside. The Lazy Boys focuses on the psychic disintegration of Richey “Souse” Sauer, nominally a college student a prodigious drinker and adherent to an especially bleak vision of masculinity embodied in the slogan, “No shame.” The novel opens with Souse’s committing of a drunken sexual assault or harassment that he can’t remember, and it culminates in a particularly gruesome attack. New Zealand reviewers recognize the book as a species of densely realized provincial novel, an attempt to depict accurately a nihilism specific to college-age males in southern New Zealand in the early 1990s. North American reviewers, however, tend to view the book as either glorifying or wallowing in that nihilism, reading it as a kind of Less Than Zero for the college set.
Shuker ought to be absolved of this charge, however. Whatever grasp of local detail The Lazy Boys might possess, it also points up an uncanny ambiguity in the language of Souse and his friends, one that can’t be reduced to “glorification.” On the one hand, Shuker captures the testosterone-driven verve of adolescent slang, and shows why this might be appealing to young men worried about their social standing. But he also makes clear how the limited vocabulary of these young men both embodies their emotional limitations and shields them from recognizing it.
The novel opens with a five-page overture in which Souse presents his account of the epic drinking that preceded his unremembered assault. Souse and his friends start doing beer bongs in a toilet, and so the word piss comes screaming to the fore: “There’s like piss all over the floor, piss on the walls, piss all over us and the floor’s slippery as and this big like piss and water fight ends up starting”; “I was really pissed too, as well as the floor being real slippery”. But then he accidentally sticks his hand “into this fucking gross blocked up urinal, all people’s piss and those soaps and beer and cigarette butts and ash and shit”. By the bottom of the page, he’s pissed in another sense, too, as his anger and embarrassment about the accident in the toilet lead him to lash out at a woman. What Souse can’t see is that if the excremental casualness of his language braces him against an indifferent world, it also hardens him against his own best impulses, preventing him from experiencing any non-pathological happiness. By the novel’s end, he’ll admit to being “frightened of himself”, but it’s far from clear whether he’s frightened of his rage or his softness.
Shuker’s key insight into Souse’s character is the mantra, “no shame.” It means, “my actions are typical. It says, any offence you feel at my actions is a function of your own naivety; this is how things are done. It says, this is what is reasonable; this is what is acceptable”. While Souse admits the phrase is defensive, he’s necessarily blind to its corrosive effects. Souse likes the phrase’s economy: I do what I do, this is what guys do, accept it or fuck off — all these are encompassed in “no shame.” More, it gives him a clear path of action in any given scenario: Do whatever a friend asks. If something bad happens, then, no shame because it happened in the context of what guys do.
Souse misses the fact that embracing the phrase turns him into a kind of automaton. He almost gets it, but not quite. So, for example, he says early on that his violence “extends directly from my experience, this country, my life … And when I say ‘I,’ it doesn’t matter, believe me, because there are many others like me”. And he’s fascinated with psychiatric treatises on serial killers and murder-rapists, spending hours in his bedroom collating the circumstances of his life against those of famous psychopaths. What Shuker makes clear is that this apparently sociological argument is in fact just a narcissistic update of “no shame.” Souse’s fear — of himself, of being shown up, of being weak — drives him to pathologize his own actions. It’s as if the horrors he commits accrue, not to himself, but to society. When a young woman near the end of the novel points out that “no shame” is “warped … It’s not an affirmation. It’s a pity,” it detonates explosively. All he do is beg silently “Don’t you dare” and curse aloud “Fuck … you”. What’s striking here is that he is someone who doesn’t dare; he acts to avoid daring, because to dare means potential failure. While Shuker presents Souse’s point of view “with conviction”, it’s clear that he doesn’t endorse it.
In the main, Shuker excels at confining himself to Souse’s point of view, and to allowing his insights about the self-destructive posing of adolescent masculinity to emerge obliquely through Souse’s darkening language. Occasionally, though, he can’t let a line or an image get away, and his protagonist says things that sound unlikely. After the novel’s opening party, Souse retreats to his parents house, and, while they’re away, tortures the dog, masturbates on his father’s chair until he bleeds, wets his bed, and fires a gun through the family television. But he also is able to notice that “Dad’s got his weight on one foot and his hips cocked casually; his body forms the shape of a parenthesis behind and beyond Mum who stands, shoulders squared to me, her focus completely on me, with that almost smug air of certainty, of someone who knows their back is covered”. Even the way the alliteration develops throughout this sentence makes it seem unlikely to have emanated from Souse’s consciousness.
And then there’s Anna, almost the only person besides his parents who still calls Souse “Richey.” Anna haunts the novel: We find out in an epigraph that she has died, killing herself after the return of cancer. Throughout the novel, we read letters from her to Souse that remember a time when Souse’s affective palette was less monochrome, and he spends a considerable amount of psychic energy denying that these emotions and this psychological flexibility are still available to him. Finally, he ends up thinking, “Forgiveness is temporary and time is short and she is dead”. Souse does speak in a compressed tone, but the economy and rhythm of this sentence sound too sophisticated for him.
Beyond its evident interest in the desperate self-alienation that is one response to male adolescent crisis, The Lazy Boys does offer a recognizable, if bleak, portrait of college life, especially in its attachment to music. Kurt Cobain’s death is probably the most significant world event in the novel, and almost the only moment of connection happens when somebody discovers a copy of “The Draize Train”. Souse and his friends are in college at time when New Zealand has just defunded higher education, shifting to a so-called “user-pays” system. The ramifications of this approach, including the way it re-introduces certain kinds of class anxieties at strange moments, are everywhere in the novel, though that would probably be clearer to a New Zealand readership. The Lazy Boys deserves a wide readership, especially among those interested in young people and the way they can, as Freud said of neurotics, “escape into illness.”