by Tyler Stevens
Publisher: Paperbooks (Legend Press )
Review: Jane Turley
There isn’t a single person I’ve ever met that I haven’t thought about killing or at least seriously harming.
Have I caught your interest?
Take old Marvin down the road. Marvin’s about sixty-four, I’d say. All the time he talked to me I could stop thinking about his neck. How it was hanging, all that skin, and it flashed in my mind to properly gut the poor old fucker.
I bet I’ve caught your interest now. Shall I turn a page or two?
Today I took a day off to see a shrink. To tell him my problems. And I went and it was okay, except I knew he was messing with me, and he knew I was messing with him. I told him I felt out of sorts and violent. Tell me about the violent thoughts, he said.
Are you hooked yet? I was.
Writers are always being urged to dream up the opening sentences to novels which grip a reader by the throat and pull him headlong into an inescapable world of fiction. However, if I’m honest, these days it’s rare a book has such an effect on me. Perhaps that’s because since beginning my own journey to becoming a writer I’m more analytical or maybe it’s because as I grow older my tastes are just more discerning. But what I do know is that I was engrossed from the opening sentences to the very last line by the novel Street from newcomer, Tyler Stevens.
I think what sets Street apart from many of the debut novels I’ve read is the clarity of voice, the simplicity of the story and its absolute fundamental rawness. There’s a lot of temptation at the outset of a writing career, perhaps even more so when a novel has been brewing for years, to overcomplicate characters, plots and even writing styles. But with Street it’s the exact opposite. The novel is written in the first person, features only one protagonist and whilst other characters pass through the novel the focus is only what’s going on in the protagonist’s mind and the point he is at in his life. It’s also written in a conversational, colloquial manner with the author, on occasions, even debating his use of punctuation and vocabulary as he wonders how readers will interpret his writing and perceive his character. And that’s a very important factor in a novel like Street because the protagonist in the novel is also the author.
So what is Street about? Let’s ask Tyler:
“Street”. What does that mean? It’s a saying I just made up to mean on the ball, out there, in amongst it, at ease, on the level.
But don’t be fooled by Tyler’s words like he tries to fool himself. Because Tyler is a young man that is definitely not at ease. He may try to hide behind a façade of street credibility but he can’t because Street is not really about a man who wants to be hip or cool. It’s about the homeless and, even more significantly, it’s about how the path to homelessness is often strewn with the debris of drugs and mental illness. Tyler might want to be “street” but that is only a delusion from which he seeks to escape the four walls of depression and mental illness. The real “street” is the street of shop doorways, cardboard boxes and murky alleys.
Since Tyler the writer is also Tyler the protagonist Street is most likely semi-autographical. How much is factual truth I do not know. It’s obvious though from the way Tyler mirrors his mental breakdown in the “Old Storm,” a swirling blizzard which follows him around as his mind alternates between moments of lucidity and moments of delusion and paranoia, that Tyler Stevens has fictionalised at least part of his story. It also suggests he has genuine literary talents. Tyler’s approach to his writing and to his emotions is completely raw, direct and unequivocally in your face. It is this very trait, which speaks from the heart and from naivety, which ultimately makes Street so refreshing and so powerful a novel.
Fucking lowlife existence this and I’m not being a part of it. This is crossing the line right here. I don’t need to become this…A few deals of dope which I smoke myself are fine, but this is disgusting, and I’m close to tears, is this what’s at the core of me? Do to others what has been done to you?
There are many emotional threads running throughout Street; fear, self-loathing, anger. They are all centre to the picture Tyler wants to paint of how mental illness, particularly when it is exacerbated by the use of drugs, affects rational thought and leads to chaos. Tyler’s story confirms what we all know but often fail to acknowledge - that the mentally ill have become the new lepers of society. These vulnerable people are living in fear of social stigma and sometimes, even though their condition urges them to reach out for help, this very fear prevents them from accepting the help they need. Instead, they might find themselves in situations spiralling totally out of their control – even to the extent they end up living on the street.
Street, as much as it is a compelling story, is also a sad and cautionary tale of drug abuse. The truth is there are degrees of mental illness and there are few amongst us who can say they’ve never been depressed or had negative thoughts at some point in our lives. But combine drugs with those kinds of vulnerabilities and you have a recipe for disaster. Perhaps this is even more the case with young people who are so easily duped by the idea of being “street” and the hard sell of a consumer based, celebrity orientated society. Being young is tough in today’s world and many young people are impressionable, not necessarily because they’re mentally unstable, but simply because they are young and inexperienced; it’s easy to be sucked into a world which, at first, seems an earthly nirvana.
Tyler’s story is an attempt for the author to makes sense of his life and in doing so he gives a shocking glimpse into a destructive, harrowing world. Although he washes his own drugs down the drain, Tyler doesn’t offer any concrete solutions to the wider issues he encounters. However, I’m not sure that anyone could find any simple answers to such a complex set of problems which reach to the core of society. At the very end of the day, survival in those circumstances probably boils down to the individual and their strength of character and whether they have the courage to face themselves.
I can’t tell you the ending to Street. That would be a spoiler. However, I think it’s exactly right. I suppose it could be argued it’s only half a story but I think it’s as much as anyone needs to know. It’s particularly gratifying though to see that a pound from every sale of Street is being donated by Tyler and his publishers, Legend Press, to the British based charity for the homeless, Shelter. I think that says a lot about the motivation behind this novel and that even if, like Tyler, you don’t know all the answers at least you can make an effort to help. When you’re down and out, whether you’re homeless, a drug addict or mentally ill or even all three – you’re still human and to that extent no one deserves to be left on the scrap heap of life.
At present, Street is £7.99 in paperback on Amazon and £2.05 on Kindle. At £2.05 that’s less than a cup of coffee at Costas.