Categorising Children of the Sun, Max Shaefer’s debut novel, is one of those problems that leads reviewers to overuse lots of words ending in ‘esque’. It owes some of its being to the secret-alternative-history genre (although it is nothing like Dan Brown), it’s sort of a socio-political study, it’s sort of a gritty emotional drama. As usual when you have to describe something like that, it’s also none of those. Whether that blend reads as new and refreshing or a confused mess will depend on the individual reader, but this is a book that isn’t afraid to make mistakes in the attempt to say something.
Plot-wise, it’s doing the double-stranded thing I really like where there are two timelines, two sets of events, where the revelations about the past tie into the revelations about the present. Here, the past follows Tony, a young neo-Nazi/far right nationalist in the eighties, as he tries to navigate the proudly racist skinhead culture without getting killed for also being gay. In the present day, James, a contemporary gay man, is writing a book about gay skinhead culture of that time. James is becoming more and more obsessed with his subject , and his conviction that there is a secret truth underlying the history of the racist skinhead movement, and in particular the death of real-life gay neo-Nazi Nicky Crane, starts to take over his life.
Excerpts from genuine neo-Nazi publications, specifically focussed on Nicky Crane and the band Skrewdriver, tie the two strands together. It’s well constructed to the point that I was surprised to find out it’s Schaefer’s debut, and a device which could have ended up a gimmick ends up bringing a cohesiveness and world building that sets it apart. The lovely construction and language lend it a kind of beauty, an engaging and charming quality which does feel strange given the fact Schaefer is deliberately pointing out the nastiest elements of the subject matter. He doesn’t wuss out on the details: the Nazi skinhead scene is a tough one, and blood and vomit and all the other sweaty, grimy details are definitely present.
Keeping it readable and sympathetic on one level while remembering that these are characters who casually decide that a fun way to spend a Saturday night is crashing a club and kicking some non-white heads in, and not romanticising that, is a difficult balancing act. Schaefer is definitely aware of this problem – to his credit, this is a novel that is very aware that it’s crossing some pretty turbulent waters – but it’s tough to say whether he succeeds or not. A lot of James’ part of the novel is about whether it’s possible to be obsessed by something without endorsing it: can you be interested in something, spend time and energy on understanding something, without at least some part of you being attracted to it? But this isn’t the kind of novel that comes up with a simple and easy answer to that problem, and you probably have to be someone who finds that kind of question fascinating if you’re going to enjoy this book as much I ended up doing.
It’s the self-conscious and self-evaluatory elements that pull this novel up from the masses of ‘secret sexual underworld EXPOSED!’ type. Yes, it’s got sex in it, and it is probably going to be known as The Gay Nazi Book forever, but that side is very specifically dealt with politically. The fine line between fascination and fetish is important here, but it fits within the wider points about whether engaging with something is the same as promoting it. Exactly where the book itself falls on that scale is open to argument, but that ends up feeling more like an extra layer to the argument than anything else.
It is a very political book, unsurprisingly given the subject matter, and if it has one great flaw it’s an excess of focus. This is a book that doesn’t let up from its very particular niche of an already small culture for hardly a second. The little relief there is – mostly James’ boyfriend and sister – decrease as the book goes on, and it does end up feeling rather claustrophobic. I kind of ended up wanting James to go and talk to more people who weren’t obsessed with gay Nazi skinheads, and also thought a book where’s there’s only one female character, and even she basically does nothing but discuss the main character’s dilemmas… in 2010? Seriously? Given that girlfriends of racist skinheads are mentioned, the fact they’re never shown and we never really get a perspective other than a white guy’s does seem to me a pretty fundamental problem. There’s an argument that the book itself does enough to problematise a focus on one particular bit of society to offset this, but that brings some other issues, mostly about using white gay men to represent all other people who are not straight white men. It’s a difficult question to answer, and again it’s tough to tell where the book falls on the issue. But then that’s deliberate: Schaefer never puts himself as the authority, and if there’s learning to be done, it’s on both sides, and secondary to the discussion itself.
The narrative journey is pretty interesting, as long as you like tales of obsession, but the gritty drama and thriller aspects do take second place to the socio-political discussion. The characters, while tending to the darker shades of grey, are fascinating, and it’s also surprisingly funny for a book that takes itself quite seriously, but this a book where politics matter, and matter desperately. If that sounds a bit too serious and political for you, then it almost certainly is. But as far as novels that are about political and social engagement go, this is solid stuff.
Any Cop?: Yes –as long as you are a fan of thrillers, or political discussions, or extremely well written books that look at society from a different point of view, this is well worth the time.