When I started reading this novel about teenage school life in the modern UK, I quickly came to the conclusion that the author, who has three earlier books to his credit, was a smart thirty-something who’d mastered the slang usage of contemporary adolescents, read up about their drug use, was rubbing his hands with glee as he evoked their clumsy sexual antics, and had finally come up with something like a UK re-run of J.D. Salinger’s famous 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. There was at least an attempt at a similar insight into adolescents’ doubts and uncertainties behind their superficial bravado. Salinger was a genius of sorts, and his hero, Holden Caulfield, one of the greatest creations of modern US fiction. But Ben Brooks, I considered, had made a not undistinguished stab at something along the same lines for the 21st century.
Then, half way through, I decided to check up on the author online. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that Ben Brooks was himself 17 when he wrote it. This, then, wasn’t some piece of patronizing literary voyeurism and pastiche, but a report from the front line that surely must contain huge amounts of the writer’s own teenage experience.
But 17! I could hardly believe it. What other example in literature, even using the word in its widest sense, is there of such precocious talent? I was pressed to think of a single instance. And it wasn’t only this novel — Brooks had three earlier works out there as well, published on US-based Web sites.
So — what’s Grow Up like? The title, first of all, is from the rock band Metric’s 2007 song Grow Up and Blow Away, as is made clear towards the end of the book when Jasper Woolf, 17, the narrator, and his school-friends go off to rural Devon and wildly party at a house belonging to some vaguely-related adults. Jasper is someone who’s seen the first Harry Potter film more times than he’s had sex, a statistic he feels he badly needs to reverse.
By Ben Brooks
He lives with his mother and stepfather Keith, someone who, affable though he is, Jasper feels convinced is a murderer. He goes to a somewhat superior school where he appears to study mostly psychology, plus philosophy and religion. He’s clearly going to do well in his exams, in reward for which his mother will let him have a piercing put in his ear, but not, as he wants, in his nose or his penis.
Marijuana unsurprisingly makes frequent appearances, and there’s a long ketamine monologue in which everything is inexpressibly, albeit incongruously, beautiful. But Jasper’s no stranger to mephedrone, especially in conjunction with black Sambuca, coming down from which he reports as feeling like “a pedophile in a nursing home.”
Pedophile jokes are common, incidentally, suggesting that today’s young are unfazed by the topic. Jasper’s class goes on an outing to a Museum of Crime where a former offender addresses them. What do you think I did, he asks. “Pedophile rape!” they all chorus. No, just rape, the poor man replies.
Jasper is a teenager at sea in a world of drugs, school and sex in a shabby, meretricious modern UK. On a coach trip he waits till his friend Ping is asleep, then uses his phone to send “I’m hot for you” texts to all his female cousins. Kettles climax, and he keeps Viagra dissolved in a bottle of Irn-Bru, a carbonated drink.
There’s plenty of writing aimed to impress. A friend’s eyes will be “the eyes of the last Bengal tiger left in Bhutan.” Charity is like putting a plaster on a man with no skin. Another friend’s drugged eyes are so wide he must, Jasper thinks, be imagining his dead grandfather dressed as a woman giving a lap-dance to the Queen.