Joel Thomas Hynes's breakneck new novel, We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night, pauses for the tiniest occasional wink. On the run, protagonist Johnny Keough flashes back to happier pastures, when he was "swaggering up the street at midnight, swaying and lurching, rambling, tellin sweet nothings to himself, singin a Pogues song." You have to wonder if that song is Fairytale of New York, the band's lovely gutter ballad about "Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank," with the singer far from home, as Johnny is. Quick and subtle, the connection gives you one breath outside Johnny's furious brain, and serves as a heads-up: He isn't the only one of his kind, and he could, in fact, be you.
Hynes knows Johnny has various antecedents in music and fiction (Tom Jones – both the gravelly singer and the 18th-century novel's wandering hero – come to mind). Like many before him, the character is an alumnus of the school of hard knocks. Johnny ducks prison, abuses substances aplenty and loses his great love, setting off from Newfoundland on a cross-country trip in her honour. The book's blurbs compare it to Trainspotting, that nineties pinnacle of sex, drugs and dance music, but Trainwrecking might be more apt; at bottom, the novel is a potent and precise manual of how human disasters are made. Hynes's gift is in serving up the pieces of the story to fall as they will, leaving you to assemble the smash.
Other familiar characters are here: wicked step-parents, a Darth Vaderish biological dad, a damaged princess on a pedestal (the perfectly named Madonna). Yet Hynes twists these stereotypes to show just how banal evil is. Casual cruelty abounds, particularly from Johnny's stepfather, Pius. As a boy, Johnny misses catching Pius's fishing line and the man spits one of his careless refrains: "Are ya … stupid or what? Are ya stupid?" In another wink-wink moment, Pius is praised around town for "tellin it like it is," à la Trump.
So what's a kid to believe? In a few years, Johnny ends up in his stepfather's shoes (and literally in his clothes), forced to reckon with who he is now and how he got here. He concludes only, "What do any of us ever know? That we used to be children and now we're not." As in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the boy's initiation into the confusing adult world is sharply delineated.
The book's big question is whether a brutal childhood can be undone. Johnny is an artful dodger, but he can't flee his memories. Another of the novel's strengths is in demonstrating how pop psychology has penetrated thinking. Johnny sometimes talks to himself like a counsellor: "Well there you have it then, lots to dwell on Johnny. … So what do you do? You take what you got, you start again … carry on … move on.…" The self-help-speak is little comfort, though, as he's the first to admit, and the shortfall leaves you wondering if help exists at all.
Despairing yet? Don't. We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night is wildly pacy and Hynes is a cinematic writer (unsurprising, given his work in film). He throws in frequent gags; for instance, a sex scene with a "classy" older woman at a motel goes utterly sideways in a great set piece. The plot is a little soapy, but it's not the point. The book is voice-driven, often an uneasy fuel for a novel, yet Johnny's monologue grabs readers by the scruff and never lets go. The shifts between past and present help its savage energy to flow. Further, Hynes flips between "you" and "he" until the distinction disappears, a skillful trick that forces readers into Johnny's skull and again reminds us we could be him.
Like Johnny's voice, that Pogues song is variously raucous, tender and sad. Some of the final lyrics from their man in the drunk tank are: "I could have been someone / Well, so could anyone." Turn this around and you have Hynes's revelation: Anyone so harshly abused could become an addict, a prisoner, a violent thief, a wounded lover, a lost soul. But no one could tell it as Johnny does.
Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.