“Fuck this, I tell myself”
—Steve Anwyll, Welfare
Welfare, the debut novel from Steve Anwyll and one of the most recent in an ongoing hot streak from Tyrant Books, is a coming-of-age tale for the Age of Ennui. The premise is simple and captured neatly in the title. Our narrator is Stan (presumably a stand-in for Steve), who at sixteen finally decides he can’t cope with his home life any longer (his stepmother is awful and his Dad lives in a disinterested daze). Unfortunately, as with most teenage dreams of freedom, things don’t exactly turn out as he imagines.
Stan moves in with his older but not wiser buddy Greg, and begins a life of drink and dope and smoke after smoke after smoke. His succession of apartments start bad and go downhill, soon buried under rotting drifts of takeout trays and cigarette butts, whole rooms abandoned to avalanches of trash and useless belongings. From there the story rotates around Stan’s central plight, mired in a situation that has no visible end.
The supporting cast are little better off, facilitating similarly bleak and squalid lifestyles by other means, crappy jobs or Catholic aid. There’s a furiously angry landlord (“dressed like an out-of-state work cowboy”), a naive old super, and metal-head neighbours with a violent streak. “The kind of guys that say they’re Satanists,” Stan describes of the latter, “but only in regards to a lifetime of long greasy hair. Death metal. Pentagram tattoos. And getting fucked up.” However, perhaps most striking peripheral characters are the hordes of self-righteous passersby who never miss an opportunity to kick a teenage boy when he’s down. Every sweaty trudge to the welfare office is accompanied by car horns and yelled insults, adding literal insult to the injury of lonely waiting rooms and soul-crushing questionnaires.
Anwyll’s prose is broken into short staccato paragraphs, which lends the whole thing a kind of anxious rhythm. Each shard of text deepens Stan’s sense of directionless despair, each hopeful line revealed to be a false dawn before the end of the following paragraph. It’s also littered with typos and spelling mistakes, not because the narrator doesn’t know any better but because he doesn’t have the energy to do anything about it, the kind of shambling sloppiness that is ingrained in everything Stan does. He comes to represent an entire generation of kids trapped within a contemporary joke, life like those gag birthday candles that refuse to stay extinguished no matter how hard you blow. There comes a point when you begin to wonder why you ever wasted your breath.
Welfare is out now on Tyrant Books.