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Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs

Some honest reflections on whether or not you should buy Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs

Everybody knows that if more than ten per cent of the population likes a work of art then that work of art should be burned. Since there’s an eminent risk that you won’t like Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs, and since I don’t want you to waste your limited disposable income, not to mention your precious leisure time, on a book you’re not going to like, it seems only fair that I describe as honestly as possible what you might be getting yourself into.

First up, the characters have jobs. Worse than that, some of them don’t have jobs. Either way, they’re not wizards or princesses or even symbologists. They spend their days doing fairly ordinary stuff (mainly cooking and selling beef burgers, but also reading books, sitting in pubs, going to university, having sex, having kids, etc), and so those readers who read primarily for escapism are advised to look elsewhere. I understand the appeal of escapist culture (my weakness is for televised football matches and romantic comedies about cheerleaders), and I wish you well.

A more grudging goodbye must be said to those who might be disappointed morally. The narrator, Wayne, is a youth of ambiguous moral fibre whose convictions and actions are more determined by circumstance than by principle (but then, what part of an individual could possibly transcend circumstance?) His friends, too, are not necessarily goodies, and since I know nothing about you, I can’t say that you’ll find them likeable. They do the sort of things that people do: they look after each other, drink with each other, and sometimes have extra-marital sex with each other (one reviewer said they had ‘cheap sex’, but in fact it’s totally unpaid for, which in Scotland is still the traditional way); but they also lie, steal, suffer from depression, fight, bully and fall out with each other. Oh, and they don’t all speak like educated North Americans. Given that they’re all European, this last point may seem redundant, but since even Robin Hood now speaks like an educated North American, I thought it wise to ward off any cultural misunderstanding. Finally, I should declare that they sometimes use ‘colourful language.’

The elephant in the room, of course, is that some of these characters behave in a manner that is politically objectionable to many readers, and sacrosanct to others. They organise collective action against their employer and some of them participate in anarchist demonstrations and riots. The author thinks that such political mobilisations are complex, sometimes admirable, and sometimes counter-productive. The people involved are not necessarily better or worse than any other group of people. Therefore, if you want to see ‘self-styled anarchists’ vilified, or placed on a pedestal, you will be disappointed.

You may also be disappointed for artistic reasons. This is a first novel. Not a J.D. Salinger or Joseph Heller first novel, but a regular, sometimes ungainly, vaguely foal-like first novel. It is also very ambitious (imagine a new-born foal attempting to break the world hacky-sack record). Although it’s a short book, it ranges over several years and takes us to five different countries. It’s stylistically uneven, I feel, and I think the strategy of varying Wayne’s proximity to the events he narrates has resulted in prose that is sometimes incongruous. There are almost certainly too many characters (any fool knows that a good book should have two major characters, two supporting characters, and three minor characters). The book is very definitely not an elegantly crafted linear narrative; it is episodic and skittish.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The novel has been great at psychologically studying individuals and examining the nuclear family, but it’s wrong to assume that the same tactics will tell us about how structural forces produced millennial political awakenings in a fast food restaurant, say. However, I readily admit that if you are looking for literary craft of high order then you would do well to look elsewhere; I don’t know, reread Lolita or The Great Gatsby or something.

I think it was Somerset Maugham who said that ‘A novelist is stuck with his youth. We spend it without paying much attention to how it will work out as material; nevertheless, we must draw on whatever was there for the rest of our lives.’ What Somerset Maugham didn’t mention is that some of us impetuously raid the picnic hamper of experience, stuffing our faces with raw ingredients before we’ve worked out their value or how best to serve them. Like so many first time novelists, I crammed my book with drama, incident, and characters.

And if you’ve not yet been put off, then it’s now reasonable to explain some of the reasons why maybe you should buy this book. First, it is designed to entertain you (you who have read this far and still think the book might be of interest). It’s a story about unexceptional people doing unexceptional things, but it is funny and fast-paced and maybe a little sad, too. There are writers so clever that from time to time they are excused from their duty to entertain (William Gass, James Joyce, etc). The rest of us need to be ‘a good date for the reader’, as Kurt Vonnegut put it. Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs will be a good date – a slightly hyper-active, eager to please date, but a date that will make you laugh and won’t bore you. You will not be lectured or indoctrinated.

It is heartfelt and sincere. I see no point in romanticising any particular group of people, and I don’t necessarily think the narrator and his friends are entirely likeable, but I care about them and empathise with them and share their concerns. I laugh with them often and only laugh at them as I would laugh at myself.

Whether you view the alienation of youth in late capitalism with optimism, concern, pity, or a mixture of all three, it is an important feature of our epoch, and it’s not going to go away. The many ways in which this alienation manifests in our society are all are explored in Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs: rising rates of depression and suicide, anti-social crime and violence, hedonistic individualism, individual and collective resistance to work, and – the most explicit and visible manifestation – politically-conscious civil disobedience and disorder. Some of these responses are disastrous and none are perfect but all deserve our attention.

As was often discussed within the movement, the politics of anti-capitalism were problematically impetuous, committed to opposition, substituting visible activity for a transformative political movement. But the same pressures and political contradictions that produced the Battle of Seattle and the tragedy of Genoa are driving the militant wing of anti-austerity movements. At the time of writing, alarmed by the economic implications of a possible Greek default on debt repayments, the British media has briefly awakened to the ongoing social struggle in that country. But it’s impossible to understand the current situation in Greece without recognising social antagonisms and radical political movements that date from the time of the Junta. Wayne’s take on Greek politics is that of an outsider – Wayne’s take on most of what he encounters is that of an outsider – but an outsider who is, by circumstance, necessarily involved. Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs is not a social history or an objective report; it’s an anarchic soap opera, a few slices of a few lives, a subjective story written from a vacillating standpoint.

And this is the final point: the book is inspired by a belief that people should tell stories that are relevant to their lives. If a demographic group cannot tell its own stories then its people will be distorted, misrepresented, ridiculed, and demeaned. We know this from how canonical and popular fiction has represented women, people of colour, working class people, and political dissidents. Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs in obvious ways pays homage to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but it is also, more subtly, a parody of Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima. You will find between its covers no shadowy men in cloaks, no sinister figures swearing secret oaths, and no revolutionary heroes recounting tales of daring-do. You will find instead some slightly confused young people, whose lives are brightened by the idea of solidarity.

D.D. Johnston


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