Short, fat and shy, the protagonist of Adam Mars-Jones’s latest novel doesn’t have much going for him; even his name — Colin — is unprepossessing. He’s just 18 when he meets an older man called Ray, who is the ringleader of a biker gang in deepest Surrey. The year is 1975 and the bikers are part of a burgeoning postwar subculture of overtly butch gay men. Enthralled by Ray’s rugged good looks and easy grace (‘the only person I’ve ever seen who could turn a page wearing leather gloves and not fumble’), Colin becomes his live-in lover and a kind of mascot-cum-communal sex object for his pals, attending their regular poker nights in the capacity of obliging receptacle. It all seems a bit too good to be true: ‘Ray’s smile was beautiful, but it made me uneasy. I couldn’t see what I had done to deserve it.’
Box Hill is narrated in the first person, in crisp, matter-of-fact prose. Colin is reminiscing from a distance of two decades, having since moved on and built a life. He is now a Tube driver and adult education enthusiast with a marked fondness for trivia; he informs us that the title of Surrey’s highest tavern has changed hands in the intervening years, passing from one Box Hill pub to another (‘there can only be a few inches in it’).
There’s an endearing anti-glamour to this novel, from its geographical setting — the bikers live in suburban locales rarely featured in contemporary fiction, such as Woking and West Byfleet — to its affectionate evocation of the cultural landscape of the 1970s — a world of shandies, Wimpy, Advocaat, obsolescent British-made bikes and the word ‘naff’.
Some of the treatment endured by Colin makes for decidedly uncomfortable reading. The relationship is exploitative and abusive — Ray tells him he only took him on because ‘No one else would have you’ — but the novel’s wry subtitle, ‘A Story of Low Self-esteem’, takes this as a given. What’s intriguing here is the conspicuous lack of reproach in the narrator’s account; his
unrepentant equanimity speaks convincingly to the sense of fatedness that attends early sexual experience — the certitude, even in the face of objective evidence to the contrary, that one is absolutely the agent of one’s own destiny. As Colin recalls: ‘I was ready. I had no real idea of what I was ready for, but still I was ready.’/>
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10