by Denis Wright
240 pages, Putnam Juvenile
Review by S.F. Winser
This may be the most disappointing good book I've read in a while, but I don't think that's actually the fault of the book. I'll explain that in a moment, but first I'd better tell you about the book itself.
'Violence 101' is a very good book. It's the story of Damon, a New Zealand teenager in a boy's detention facility. Most of the book is told from his perspective in a series of diary entries. There are two main things you need to know about Damon, first he's highly intelligent. Second, he's nearly psychotically violent.
Damon's voice is palpable. There's very rarely a dishonest note. His writings are, at turns, heartbreaking, funny and downright disturbing. Mostly disturbing. This book was doing something great. We have a teen Hannibal Lector, but with some deliberate questions about how society handles its monsters because the book constantly rubs in your face that Damon isn't a monster, he's a teenaged boy – deeply disturbed, but just a boy. Damon is sympathetic, worrying and persuasive. There are large passages where Damon pretty much defends atrocities or promotes dangerous ideas (because he's obsessed with politics, war and education) and does it well, with decent logic and evidence and does so with such barefaced earnestness that it nearly seduces the reader. These parts of the novel were, for me, the most effective and affecting part – well above any nasty stories about science experiments on the neighbour's pets. Damon is never ascribed an actual pathology – a deliberate choice on Wright's part – so the reader is never given the opportunity to label him a sociopath or a psychopath and constantly has to see him as a person rather than a condition. A person who could conceivably exist in the real world.
However, I had the (mis?)fortune of hearing Denis Wright speak about this book a few months ago. He's a very interesting man, who had very definite goals for this book. The problem being that he admitted that he had been forced to change the ending by his publishers and that he wasn't happy with it. I was very aware of this fact, and when the tone changed, when Damon goes on an almost spiritual quest and towards redemption and sort of succeeded, it felt very dishonest all of a sudden. One of the better minor characters appears in order to give Damon a fortuitous lift to his destination, but most of the rest of the book simply fell flat for me. I may have been over-sensitive, recalling Wright's comments as I read, but I could almost feel Wright forcing Damon towards a type of resolution he had never intended.
And that was part of the real problem. This was a book building towards blood. Real world consequences for Damon's disturbing obsessions would have been more thematically redeeming rather than the actual, near redemption of Damon himself. Instead Damon starts to become a better person. Nothing wrong with that, but not exactly a brave choice by the publishers to leave it at that.
And that's why it was disappointing. This was a very good book, well worth anyone's time, with a great main character. But it was hamstrung. A great book forced into being simply a very good book by editorial fear.