Except, of course, that they must be lads -- which is the main reason Helen Walsh's Brass has the British literary lions in such a lather. The story of a ferociously dysfunctional sexual predator and all-round hedonist, Brass' protagonist could have been pulled from the pages of Irvine Welsh, Nick Hornby, and John King, or even heavyweights like Martin Amis and Will Self.
Could have, that is, except she's a wee lassie, not a lad. From the opening page, Walsh and her protagonist are indistinguishable from their male progenitors: Jacked up on booze and blow, the bisexual university student Millie pays a female hooker for sex, which the author graphically stages on a cemetery gravestone in the shadow of Liverpool's great cathedral. It's a compelling opening gambit -- is nothing sacred? In Brass, as in Lad Lit, the answer is a resounding "no."
Hornby's timid story of Premiere League football obsession Fever Pitch (1991) is generally considered the font of modern Lad Lit. But there's a sub-genre that traces its roots back to the emotionally damaged, drink-fueled working class protagonists -- aka the Angry Young Men -- of writers like Allan Sillitoe and Anthony Burgess. The latter's A Clockwork Orange (1962) provided a template for the later excesses of the anti-heroes in Amis' Dead Babies (1975) and Welsh's Trainspotting (1992), literary high points in the genre. These are the spiritual nihilists that inform Brass.
But in the intervening years, shock art has inundated Western culture, dulling our senses or raising our expectations, depending on your proclivities. In an age where you can watch people eat maggots for money on TV, and every other public figure has been in rehab, shock value has lost its cachet -- perhaps not financially, but certainly artistically -- and Brass suffers from it. Oh, Millie's picked up some drunken tart in a bar and is fisting her while her victim vomits into the toilet? Ho-hum, been there, read that. Oh, Millie's stolen her boyfriend's drugs and is now having it off with some diseased whore? Alrighty then -- is The Daily Show on yet?
Like a lot of nihilist Lad Lit, plot is mostly a means to get from one graphic bender and sexual deviation to another, and one almost wishes Walsh had skipped entirely what little there is of it in Brass. We learn that Millie is the daughter of a well-respected philandering professor at the same university she attends and a cardboard cutout mother figure who has abandoned both of them. It's this cataclysmic -- or quite mundane, really -- event that drives Millie to rebel with such fervor.
Though we've read all this before, sans gender swap, Walsh's debut is workmanlike. She does a credible job capturing the Scouse dialect and rhyming slang that varies from town to town in the British Isles. Using concise, punchy sentences and simple language, her descriptions of her native Liverpool give a visceral, you-are-there feel to the city's pubs and streets.
Unfortunately, what gets lost in the hubbub surrounding Brass and its female author and protagonist is the fact that good literature -- Lad, nihilist or otherwise -- should tell us something more about ourselves and society. Beneath the depictions of heroin hell in Trainspotting, for instance, Welsh's novel throbs with the potential of class warfare. Walsh skirts the issue, much to the reader's chagrin. Early on in Brass, Millie's best mate Jamie, a lower-class worker and the novel's lone male with a moral compass, ponders the question:
"That's the one thing that's always been iffy between Millie and myself, truth be known -- she's fucken blase. She is, la. I'm not arsed where she's from or what fucken privileges she's had from her aul' folks and that -- none of that means fuck all to me. What does my head in is the way she don't use it. It's all so fucken easy for the girl. And fuck la, I don't like saying none of this, I truly do not like having to even think this shite, but there's times when I know she's just slumming it. She is. Pissing her days away in them slimy hovels up behind the Uni -- fuck she's trying prove end of the day?"
It's a valid question for Walsh, too: What sort of empowerment -- female or otherwise -- is there in the gender-free black hole of nihilism?