This novel is set in the ungentrified, Italian-inflected neighbourhood of Brooklyn called Gravesend. It’s a rundown place where you might not choose to live if you had much choice in the matter.
There is nothing glamorous or life-changing about it: bridges and tunnels lead to other parts of the larger metropolis that might offer the prospect of a better life but Gravesend itself feels like a dump (the name speaks for itself).
Gravesend is New York’s nether region and it is where the anti-hero Ray Boy Calabrese grows up.
As a youngster Ray Boy was cool and cocky, a natural leader for a street gang, and he never gave his homophobia a second thought until it leads to the death of a young boy.
Then he has plenty of time to think about it, serving 16 years in prison for a hate crime, the consequences of a stupid bigotry he failed to question.
The story takes off when Ray Boy is released from prison and Conway D’Innocenzio, the brother of his victim, is waiting to take revenge.
So far, so standard, but the plot becomes more interesting when Conway realises that the withdrawn Ray Boy doesn’t want to live, desires instead to be killed for the crime he now regrets so much that it fills his soul with a terminal self-loathing.
Into this odd take on crime and punishment steps Alessandra, a failed actress who managed to escape from Gravesend when she was young but who has returned home to help her father, partly out of guilt because she was not there when her mother was dying.
“Gravesend” has justly received praise for a first novel. It’s not a thriller or hard-boiled crime noir – there is a soft centre that endears itself to the reader – but it should keep your interest if this is a genre you’re familiar with and enjoy.
What gives this novel a hard-core quality is not its gritty language or engaging characters but the relentless conviction that where and how you grow up sculpts your life chances.
The mould is not cast in stone – Alessandra is proof of this because she manages to escape – but it condemns Ray Boy’s troubled nephew, 15-year-old Eugene, as surely as fate condemned Oedipus to kill his father and marry his mother.
The tone of Greek tragedy is felt in other ways. Memory and reputation works down from one generation to the next, bestowing unwelcome gifts and false promises, and Gravesend’s author, William Boyle, expressed his fine awareness of this in an interview.
He grew up in Gravesend, the locale is intimately familiar: “At 15, I looked around and knew I didn’t want to be racist or homophobic or sexist. I went from not having words for those things to understanding what I didn’t want to be. The lessons came from books, movies, songs, teachers, friends, family.”
“Gravesend” is a good read, though a little schematic, and William Boyle’s second novel, “The lonely witness”, is worth looking out for when it appears later this year.
“Gravesend”, by William Boyle, is published by No Exit Press.