M ongrel is a one-off, a first novel offering an intuitive, unencumbered voice that vaults beyond notions of the marketable. Raw spontaneity, of course, can sometimes produce little more than energetic dreck. Not Marko Sijan. Out of the mud of teenage hope and desperation, he generates black diamonds.
Featuring a culture-straddling cast of seeking, stumbling young narrators, Mongrel could not be better titled. Structurally simple (five successive first-person accounts of a few days in June, 1999), the novel is psychically intricate, a journey into the diversely and universally human.
We start with Sera at the wheel of daddy's car, approaching the Windsor-Detroit tunnel. Joining her are brother Lenny and his current squeeze, Basha, all of them holding tabs of ecstasy under their tongues, poised to be swallowed just as soon as U.S. customs goons show any impulse to search and seize. Their destination, comically, is a warehouse rave party in somnambulant Ann Arbor.
Sijan's approach feels initially haphazard. As you catch his drift, what seems a rush of random observation begins to coalesce into a matrix of connections – to friends, family, ancestry, unfolding present, reconsidered past. Sera's world emerges through prickly dialogue in the car, memory flashbacks, manifestos of belief (she is prescriptive about the soul) and detours into Sera's Jamaican and Basha's Yugoslav cultural baggage. In a tight narrative space, Sijan juggles many balls, and what impresses most is not his prowess, but the waves of understanding that radiate.
Sera's night spins out of control. We leave her manically trying to re-enter Canada on foot. Then we're plunged into Gus's story, opening with a nightmare sequence of high-school bullying ramped up to outright torture. Gus is from Quebec, while his friend Milan (Basha's brother) is ethnically Serb and Croat. Dubbed "Pus" and "Retard" by the school's football yobs, their backgrounds only provide more fodder for mindless bigotry. Appeals to school authorities hit an entrenched blame-the-misfits mantra. Even the principal, Gus says, calls him and Milan "warts on the ass of the student body."
Sijan does sex – from back-seat fumbling to epic wet dreams – with unblinking ease, candour and frequency. Gus, in particular, is an excruciating wonder, his puerile riffs on flesh and fluids unquotable in these pages. Gus's response to Sera's "Do you believe in God?" sums up his weedy, knee-jerk impudence: "God's a fag."
Gus's bulemic sister Sophie weighs in: 10 pages comprising two cri-de-coeur goodbye letters, one to her mom, the second to her heartless boyfriend, its prose finally disintegrating as 30 Zoloft tablets begin to erase her consciousness. The chapter ends with a mash of garbled thoughts and wrenching half-words. It is quite literally not a syllable too long.
Then "Retard" speaks. "Mama thinks I might have a learning problem." If so, it pales beside the problem of Tata, Milan's dad, whose xenophobic obsessions have been kicked into overdrive by the months-long NATO bombing of his Serbian homeland. Tata's rants and binges have driven Milan's Croatian mother from the home, leaving chronically passive Milan at his mercy. Against Sijan's four other voices, Milan's reads as colourless and emotionally blunted. Despite the suggestion of a learning disorder and social ineptness, it feels like an authorial lapse, until we gradually absorb the extent to which Milan's spark has been snuffed. Draconian dads, of course, are often paper tyrants. Tata's violent downfall flirts with melodrama, then pulls back to leave a gratifying ambiguity.
We end with Gunther, the hulking football lout who brutally bashes Gus and Milan. The villain gains depth here, almost raising a flash of grudging sympathy. As Gunther suits up his "hammer" for a trashy turn in the sheets with his ex-girlfriend's mom, Sijan slips in an apt product placement for fans of French author Michel Houellebecq.
These characters beg for more exploration, a larger narrative arc to house their seductive complexities. That's all right. There is not a page here that doesn't live.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.