Marty, Paul Lewis and Eddie Dwiar are journalists with no love for their lives in Britain. Two of them have either emigrated from Wales to Australia or are about to do so. The other is going crazy. These are their stories.
There are three novels in this anthology: Manic Streets of Perth, Looking For Sarah Jane Smith and To Dare a Future. I'll confess that the tenuous Doctor Who connection of that middle title was what initially grabbed my interest, but it's merely a novel whose main character has fond memories of watching Doctor Who and some slightly unfortunate ideas focused around Elizabeth Sladen. If you too have the Sad Completist Fan gene and you're wondering whether to buy this on those grounds, I can assure you that the Completistometer ranks this even lower than Queer as Folk.
Dave Franklin is an entertaining writer, but the main thing I took away from these three novels was the personal thread running through them. This is a compliment. To evoke a character and his point of view so strongly that the reader sees them as the author's alter-ego, you must portray that character with conviction. This is different from creating a stand-in for one's self-indulgent fantasies, otherwise known as a Mary-Sue. Like his protagonists, Dave Franklin has emigrated from Wales to Australia. Furthermore he has a strong authorial voice that comes through not only in his protagonists but also in the world of the books themselves. Of course this could be a deliberate creation, for comic or dramatic effect. I dislike people who try to psychoanalyse authors through studying their novels, so all I'll say is that Dave Franklin has crafted a literary identity in these pages. Whether it corresponds with his real-life personality is beyond my ability to judge, or indeed interest in doing so.
However by the end, this identity was almost overwhelming. It was funny in the first two books, but by the third one I was starting to get feelings of "I've seen this before". Essentially Marty, Paul and Eddie are laddish journalists who think the world's shit. It's not just mindless nihilism, either. They have strong opinions and know what they like, but they also have little tolerance for the mundanity of everyday life. They don't just randomly dismiss everything, but instead have specific reasons for hating Bryan Adams, control-freak girlfriends, Australian beer and a million other things. This is highly entertaining and often funny. It's as if his characters are writing a non-stop review of the world. However it also comes through in the narrative voice. The world of Marty, Paul and Eddie really is crap. You can't disagree with them. Even at his sunniest, Dave Franklin has an eye for the little everyday shittinesses, the clouds inside the silver lining. However when necessary he can also create something so grotesque as to be either hilarious or horrifying.
His protagonists live slightly appalling lives that even they aren't satisfied with, but they aren't happy with the things that satisfy the rest of us. They want to make a difference. Just settling down with a nice girl and having a normal life is something with which they're fundamentally uncomfortable. All three books have a good-hearted, straightforward girl who's attracted to the protagonist, but is likely to come to regret this.
So far, so straightforward. Unfortunately I think Dave Franklin collected his three novels in the wrong order. Correctly or not, I got the overwhelming impression that Looking For Sarah Jane Smith was the one he wrote first, followed by Manic Streets of Perth and then To Dare a Future. The copyright page gives dates of 2001, 2002 and 2005, but doesn't ascribe them to specific books. If my re-ordering is correct, there's a clear progression. Looking For Sarah Jane Smith is almost plotless and the most obviously autobiographical, starring Marty and his two horrifying loser mates as they reel drunkenly around a Welsh hellhole and prepare to escape to Australia. Manic Streets of Perth introduces dim-witted bad guys and a modest quantity of plot, but is still basically an excuse for his characters to bounce off each other and make digs at the world. In particular Paul Lewis still feels very much like the author's mouthpiece, although he's also pathetic and in some ways almost a monster.
To Dare a Future is completely different to the other two. It feels like a self-conscious attempt to create a proper novel, with story development and a general raison d'etre that's a million miles away from the first two's ambience of "hey, let's slag stuff off and crack a few jokes". This book's hero, Eddie Dwiar, is most definitely a monster. The unsociable traits have been intensified to the point where he's practically a psychopath, even if he's still basically the same as the protagonists of the preceding books. The key difference is that Eddie doesn't even want any emotional connection with the people around him, while his predecessors on some level were at least operating within some kind of social framework even if they weren't comfortable there. He prefers to watch things like Taxi Driver and American Psycho, which incidentally indicates where Dave Franklin's going with this novel. Imagine a more depressing British version of Taxi Driver, set in a antipathetic depiction of Portsmouth. It's not as good as Robert de Niro's version, but it's similarly uncomfortable. To be honest, I didn't much enjoy it, although I found the other two funny.
If you read the books in my suggested order, there's a simple progression. The novels' protagonists go from 1. "feckless idiot who needs to grow up" to 2. "damaged and pathetic but at least sufficiently functional in the real world to hold down a steady job" and finally 3. "get away from me you scary freak". However reading them in the order in which they've been collected here creates the following impression in the reader's mind. 1. "He's obviously the author's mouthpiece, even if he's a bit fucked up." 2. "Bloody hell, he really is the author, isn't he?" 3. "Is this some kind of cry for help?" I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that this wasn't Dave Franklin's intention.
The prose is energetic and (in the first two books) funny, but not always in control of point of view. There are occasional clumsy moments when the narrative jumps without warning into a different character's head, as if we'd become telepathic or something. However he's also capable of punctuating the laddishness with sincerity, as with the outstanding sixth chapter of Looking For Sarah Jane Smith.
Dave Franklin writes well and distinctively. These are both valuable qualities. It's very obvious what kind of things interest him as a writer, but these three novels are sufficiently different from each other that so far he's avoided plagiarising himself. It's not immediately obvious where he'd go with a hypothetical fourth book, but it would probably be at least worth checking out.