Billy Smith, the protagonist and narrator of Stephen May’s new novel, “Life! Death! Prizes!,’’ is a familiar type in today’s literary landscape. He’s young. He’s smart. And above all, he’s alienated. He spends most of his time in a funk, casting a gimlet eye on the damaged world around him.
The pleasures of this sort of character — I hesitate to use the term “hero” — reside in one of two possibilities. First, that he offer us genuine insights. Second, that at some point the novelist strips away his defensive ennui and makes us feel the pain hammering away beneath.
The verdict on May is a split decision. He succeeds brilliantly at the former and fails pretty decisively at the latter.
In Billy’s case, the source of his brooding is clear enough: His mother, a charismatic divorcee, has been murdered in a botched robbery, the sort of lurid crime routinely commemorated in the tabloid magazines Billy can’t resist consuming. Barely into his 20s, Billy takes custody of his little brother Oscar, age 6.
From the start, Billy proves a deft cultural critic, wise to the artifice of the quaint English suburb where he resides. “It’s all a pleasing collision of light wood and chrome,” he notes, of a model home kitchen he tours. “It’s like a hospice.” That Billy has death on the brain comes as no surprise. “[T]he bed looked like an engine with Mum as a battery,” he tells us, of his last moments with her. And still later, he describes the action in family court as “[t]epid battles fought with rustled papers instead of fists and teeth.”
Billy’s bitterness is tough stuff, but full of the bruised wisdom misfortune bestows. “Old people know where the rest of us are headed,” he explains. “They’re sending us back these clear, explicit messages about the dark and loveless place we’re speeding towards.”
The plot of “Life! Death! Prizes!’’ turns on whether Billy will retain custody of Oscar. His well-meaning aunt, Toni, would like to fill that role. And she has the support of the boy’s teachers and a pack of earnest social workers.
But the book’s most exciting passages, oddly, focus on the murderer, a petty criminal named Aidan Jebb. There’s a palpable thrill to the language, and an unmistakable pathos, whenever Billy imagines his way into Jebb’s squalid life. The assailant comes off as a far more realized character than either Smith brother.
For all his raging eloquence, Billy proves much better at seeing the world around him than the one inside of him. He comes off as righteous and self-pitying, especially when he lectures about the duties of a father. Because, from what we see, Billy isn’t much of a parent at all.
Oscar throws an occasional tantrum, or engages in an aw-shucks moment of kindergarten cuteness. But he never much intrudes upon Billy’s post-adolescent slacker lifestyle, which consists of playing video games, surfing the Web for porn, doing drugs, and daydreaming at work. Even when it becomes clear that Oscar’s becoming something of a bully, Billy does little more than take note of it.
This makes the surprising and oddly happy ending feel more like a gift given than earned.
For all his sharp truths about the illusions and hypocrisies of modern life, when it comes to real emotional tolls of raising a child, Billy proves just another deadbeat dad.Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of the story collection “God Bless America.’’ He can be reached at stevealmondjoy@