Shelf Life - by Brian Bowyer
I had previously read “Flesh Rehearsal”, one of Bowyer’s more recent novels, before reading this one, as well as one of Brian’s short story collections “Perpetual Dread”, so I knew Brian’s voice and storytelling style before reading this, his debut novel. As such, I was used to Boyer’s Brecht-ian approach to his books, the absolute reduction of information into compact sentences that cut all of the fluff from the narrative; the destruction of a sentence into only the core of a construct that conveys the pertinent information as quickly and bluntly as possible. It’s a style that does two things prominently – it releases one-liners that are so immediate that they act as shocks to the system given the information they contain, and it reduces absolute horror to manageable bite-size chunks – allowing the reader to process sudden brutality by removing the emotional impact and laying the event in cold clinical reporting. It’s both fascinating and repulsive, and, it turns out, addictive.
Brian’s worlds are full of bad people. Furthermore, those that fall victim to the bad people slip into an almost fly-caught-in-a-spider-web type attitude – all hope is lost and they accept their fates. Very few of Brian’s characters rage into their demise. It feels as if inevitability plays a large part in their lives. That acceptance is a core feature here, in a book appropriately titled “Shelf Life”, Bowyer's argument seems to be that we all have a shelf life date in our existences, the recognition of that date is perhaps the ultimate redeeming moment in our lives. It’s an embrace of Fate as a concept, that the spider must always hunt the fly – and the fly is always going to die. That the fly gives up any attempt at escaping, is a given.
Elements in this book would later find their way into Flesh Rehearsal – A band forming with a stray person that can sing arriving out of the blue – A serial killer related to one (or more) of the band members – a character that is drug/alcohol addict who does not take the medicine prescribed to him for his addiction, who lives through hallucinations which are written as if he is living them. Most of the characters in the book are alcohol or drug addicted.
Bowyer paints his characters with problems, yet gives each a fundamental goodness – most of the people addicted are kind – share what they have and attempt to help people they come across. The other end of that scale is also represented - Killers take what they want when they want. The bluntness of the vocabulary Bowyer uses creates an almost glass-like barrier, from behind which we witness the atrocities he displays to us. Taken at face value, the horrific becomes somehow palatable. You find yourself reading to see how far it is all going to go.
There are moments in this book that seem a step too far, the bodyguard’s addiction and actions were, for me, a moment where I thought – really? I mean – it was readable, but did he really need to do what he did? I won’t “spoil” it here, but I think it was Brian in his early days perhaps wanting to shock the reader even more – as it turned out that wasn’t really required given the brutality already in the book.
All well and good, but how was it?
Uncomfortable, as are most of Brian’s books. You do find yourself caring for the characters – Nina and her father are the common link in it all, you want them to have a happier life. You want to see the serial killers get their comeuppance. You want closure on all of the story threads. It works. It’s uncomfortable, engaging, disgusting at times, and fascinating in others. It does what a book is supposed to do – it presents a story (however bloody and brutal) and makes you want to know what is going to happen to the characters inside it. Did I enjoy it? No – I can’t say the content is enjoyable. Is it entertaining? Absolutely. Is it engaging? Yes, though harrowing. Would I read it again? Probably not, the punches to the face that Brian delivers are an important part of the experience.
This is a four ⭐ ‘s read for me. Brian’s writing remains an enigma, something that is so distinct it is fascinating, but which you know you need time away from before appreciating again. And make no mistake, you do appreciate the writing. It’s brutal, extreme, violent, deranged, and gag-worthy.
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