Phoenix: A Brother’s Life, by J.D. Dolan, Seattle TImes

Arts & Entertainment: Sunday, June 25, 2000

‘War Boy’ rings true, has some flashes of wisdom

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

This energetic and ambitious first novel is narrated by Radboy, a 14-year-old deaf skateboard punk. “Storytellers lie,” he warns us right away, then proceeds to tell as much truth as he can.

The action kicks into gear when Jonnyboy, a 24-year-old “kweer,” beats up Radboy’s abusive dad. Jonnyboy and Radboy steal dad’s coin collection and split for San Francisco. On the way, they hook up with Finn and Critter, meth-head boyfriends, and Ula, a “Swedish Blond Communist,” and embark on a series of a drug-addled adventures, including a concert featuring Northwest indie rockers Sleater-Kinney.

Hillsbery has a good ear for subculture language, writes honestly and knowingly about druggy life, and the frenetic rhythms of his prose matches the subject. There is not a single comma in Radboy’s narration, which seems a bit gimmicky at first, but soon rings true to its source.

The story zooms along engagingly enough, like a hyper-modern “Huckleberry Finn,” but then takes a strange turn when an eco-terrorist plot develops. The politics are juvenile, which is not a criticism when you remember that the narrator is 14 and his friends are crackheads. “All I really know about politics is from punk rock zines and song lyrics and stuff on the Internet.”

What works about the book, despite the plot contrivances, is the voice, the flashes of wisdom and the desperate urgency in its theme of human connection, which eventually finds form in a late-developing love story between Radboy and Jason. This is one of those first novels where the author is trying so hard to get things right, to make something honest and lasting, that his will, more than skill, turns this into solid modern literature.