by Sean Thor Conroe.
Wildfire, 341 pp., £16.99, January, 978 1 4722 9310 7
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The title​ is ironic. Whatever a ‘fuckboy’ is – my understanding is that it’s a slang term, about a decade old, for young American men in cities who conduct a caddish heterosexual sex life – the narrator of Sean Thor Conroe’s first novel, who shares the author’s name, doesn’t do much fucking. ‘Fucced Boy’ or ‘Fuccup’ would be more accurate descriptions. The opposite of the fuckboy is the incel, though that wouldn’t be the right word for Sean either. (So many new categories! How much simpler it used to be when it was all about the hipster/square binary, each side indifferent to the other.) There are a few women in his life, but the novel is about something more interesting than sex. It’s an account of a highly specific crack-up, and a largely self-inflicted one, though a few of the usual suspects, among them capitalism and the American healthcare system, share some of the blame.

Sean records rap tracks and a podcast, but we don’t hear much about these activities. At the start of the book, which runs from the winter of 2017 to the summer of 2019, he is mostly delivering food around Philadelphia for Postmates, a firm that was purchased by Uber in 2020. The work is patchy, badly paid, and exposes him to the elements. Sean’s freedom from an ‘officialising’ day job is offset by the aggravations of serving indifferent customers. He works mostly at night, catering to the cravings of college students and yuppie revellers who’ve returned home with the munchies. Sean subsists largely on cigarettes and junk food. He has a SNAP card – as food stamps are called now – for use in approved stores.

It wasn’t always this way for Sean. He has a degree from Swarthmore, though he graduated two years late. He was a basketball player until he quit and started smoking rollies. As an undergraduate he wrote a book on Roberto Bolaño and the Juárez femicides chronicled in 2666. He attempted to walk across the United States, giving up somewhere short of California – the subject of the ‘Walk Book’ (‘167k words’) which he’s shopping to a former classmate who’s gone into publishing in New York. There was a stint working on marijuana farms in Humboldt County. He owns a van that’s full of crap from his former lives. His childhood, if not exactly idyllic, is the source of fond memories. His father was the son of a US air force pilot and his mother Japanese. The family lived in Japan, Scotland, upstate New York and California. Sean has complicated feelings about his ‘hapa’ roots on his mother’s side (taking her name, Kamura, as a pen name would be ‘more woke’) and the atrocities that Americans, including his paternal grandfather, committed against her homeland. (‘Mom’s dad’s entire fam besides him bombed out and merked by US planes.’) The marriage ended in divorce, his father ‘dipping’ for another woman. He has adoring siblings as well as an extended family of devoted cousins and uncles, including one who gives him $5000 after graduating, a mixed blessing. Once upon a time he also had a girlfriend, the frequently invoked ‘ex bae’. (There are also ‘side bae’, ‘editor bae’, ‘autonomous bae’, even ‘roomie bae’, but his connections and sexual relations with them range from tenuous to non-existent.)

The walking, the reading, the rapping, the podcast, the refusal of a proper day job and the ‘undying dedication to the takedown of the Man’ make Sean a romantic idealist in an age that has tired of such characters – or at least prefers that their idealism be monetised. The respect afforded to those who refrain from selling out vanished shortly after the end of the 1990s. Sean is aware of this, and his ambitions certainly don’t exclude stardom and cashing in. He takes novels with him to ‘rail’ between Postmates tasks. His notes on Bolaño, Elena Ferrante and Tao Lin, as well as various rappers and podcasts, are dispersed through the text, but they’re less notable for their insights than as an index of Sean’s persistent attempts at self-education and self-understanding, in a life that has come to seem a constant cycle of poorly compensated work, fraying friendships and unconsummated romance.

Late in the book he sits down at a typewriter to continue work on the novel we’re reading, most of which seems to have been composed on the Notes app on his phone. Whether or not these passages are true to life, Conroe’s prose style favours street slang, internet shorthand, the one-line paragraph and the sentence fragment. If there’s a subject, often there’ll be no verb but rather a participle. If there’s a verb, often no subject. Most non-Sean characters are identified only by an initial, which makes them hard to keep track of across three hundred pages. But the minimalist style has its compensations: it’s funny, for one thing, and when it isn’t funny it can heighten the poignancy of Sean’s predicament.

Here he is in Vermont, living in a tent and working as a day labourer for his cousin E, after the Trump administration has issued a stimulus to farmers. His body is breaking down, his skin erupting all over:

Tried to zone out by listening to a pod about a cult by a dude who grew up in one.
        Everything raw and cracked and chafing.
        Arms like I already said.
        But crotch all fucked now also.
        V on either side cracked and oozing.
        Where either side of my ball bag met inner thigh cut up.
        I lay on my side and listened to the disembodied dweeby NPR voice tell me how charismatic the cult leader his parents followed as a child was, initially.
        Turned it up to compete with the assault of raindrops pattering on my tarp draped over my tent.
        Couldn’t believe I slept in this thing for 100 days, while walking 20-30 miles a day and barely showering.

The comic juxtaposition of itinerant labour and ‘dweeby’ middlebrow content consumption is typical of Conroe’s code-switching method.

The rebellion of his skin, accompanied by exhaustion, makes him useless on the farm, so his cousin sends him back to Philadelphia. Without a regular doctor and with no health insurance apart from Medicaid, he can’t find a physician willing to see him any time soon. An alarming attempt at online self-diagnosis indicates that his swelling ankles might be caused by diabetes. A couple of his molars crack. His mother and sister summon him to Los Angeles, where they feed him proper meals and introduce him to various specialists and healers, who put him on a regime of steroids, antibiotics, lotions and medicinal pot. The steroids and the subsequent ‘roid withdrawals’ leave him in an even more fragile mental state. And every time he starts to feel better he does some premature ‘wilding’, either partying or exercising too much. He returns to the basketball court and has a fall. The steroids having weakened his bones, he fractures his hip and has to walk with a cane. The fracture isn’t discovered until he goes to the emergency room a couple of weeks later. Here, at last, he finds Philadelphia doctors who will treat his full-body eczema on Medicaid. He also meets a dermatologist (‘derm bae’), who, it’s hinted, might become a romantic partner after the novel ends.

Having reached the point of being totally fucked, unable to work or write, Sean embarks on a therapeutic arc in the final part of the novel. He is reintegrated into social life and the world of work. The novel’s theme of code-switching resumes in a pair of scenes in which he goes for drinks with a group of yuppies and gets into an argument over the gender wage gap: ‘When the convo flagged/veered woke towards the patriarchy and how women, in America, in 2018, were held down, I felt a rage bubbling … How tf was I privileged?’ He takes up an offer of work setting up booths for a hotel convention in Washington and finds himself among a crowd of working stiff guys:

All of us rowdy bowdy talking shit doing gay jokes disrespecting women from afar.
        The one woman on crew, hella zatted mid-thirties girl who gave no fucks – that was her vibe – just smirking and shaking her head when we said sus shit.
        Like you fucking monkeys.
        You cavemen.
        I’d forgotten how to talk like this but picked it up fairly quickly.
        Doing so was the price of admission.
        It brought us closer.
        It unified the squad.

The ‘woke’ v. ‘sus’ conflict is a symptom of Sean’s broader class confusion. If the ‘sus’ means tasteless or offensive things tolerated in certain (working-class, male) company but also sketchy or actually bad behaviour, ‘woke’ indicates a separate code adopted by his professional friends. When it annoys him, it means someone’s self-righteousness is getting on his nerves. When he describes himself as ‘being so woke’, it usually means he’s being unselfish in bed or pleasantly hanging out with some women. None of this is especially profound, but it has the value of comic deflation. Absent is any of the daily online howling between the opposing sides in the culture wars. Rather there are the shifting mores of young people of different classes with clashing politics trying to get along with one another. Sean’s elite if ultimately frustrating education, and his frustrating if occasionally comradely work life, give him a foot in both camps. Rather than bending towards conventional bourgeois assimilation, towards the sort of life he sees on a trip to a Delaware beach house with the yuppies (‘This whole area, beach houses and American flags and Ford trucks in driveways, felt like a slice of society I’d hitherto been excluded from. That I’d somehow managed to sneak into’), the novel ends with a synthesis. Sean’s identity crisis is resolved when his yuppie connections find him a job delivering produce to food banks and residences in North Philadelphia, mostly to African Americans living in poverty: a ‘hood’ zone. He cleans all the crap out of his van and puts it to use. Healthy, manly and so woke.

As for Sean’s literary ambitions, the book’s little forays into criticism set out his ars poetica, such as it is. From Knausgaard he learns that the taboo, the unsayable, the material grounded in shame, is what literature must express. From Sheila Heti, that dedication to art can be a valid substitute for procreation and family life, leading to ‘Book Babies’ in place of human ones. Well, sure. Not incorrect but somewhat trite takeaways, as a dweeb on NPR might say. In the shadow of these thoughts are a couple of acknowledged but largely unexamined events: the divorce of Sean’s parents and the abortion ‘ex bae’ had, which ‘was what fucked everything’. Conroe doesn’t quite grant Sean the imagination to think through either event, but they’re clearly behind some of his problems. This is hinted at in a fight between Sean and his father, a Republican, over FaceTime:

‘But tellin ya, son. My cataracts –’
        ‘BITCH don’t call me son I ain’t your son.’
        ‘Well you are. Technically.’
        ‘Relationships aren’t relationships de facto. They only are if you make em. Like plants; you gotta water em. Maybe if you had the balls to ever talk to your own dad, you’d –’
        ‘Whether you like it or not, you chose me. Your soul did. Chose me, as a parent. So –’
        ‘You’re still telling yourself that? To justify your fuckshit? That’s weak, bro.’
        ‘Whatever you say –’
        ‘That doesn’t even make sense. What about abortions?’
        ‘Well yeah. Abortions. Abortions are wrong. Unnatural.’
        ‘So, what. You have an abortion. Then … what?’
        ‘Well your soul is gonna have to pay for that. At some point. The soul of the child –’
        ‘Dude, you fuckin serious?’
        ‘What? Yeah. Snowflake liberals want you to think –’
        ‘You’re saying that. To me. Now.’ I was losing my shit. ‘Knowing what I went through. What happened with – Why I can’t get over –’
        He said he hadn’t known about that … So yeah.
        The ole man convo wudn’t too productive.

Every young novelist has their limits. Another title for Fuccboi might have been Burakumin, the term for the outcast children of Japanese hamlets: ‘Discriminated against and ostracised, relegated to impure jobs tainted by death. Executioners, undertakers, slaughterhouse workers. Tanners.’ Sean’s mother tells him that if he and his siblings had ‘happened earlier’, after the war, they would have ended up burakumin like the children of American GIs and local prostitutes. Sean’s consciousness about race flicks on and off throughout the novel, but he is often a superfluous man. (This is also the audience he envisions, as he tells a seemingly homeless middle-aged guy who advises him to get an MFA: ‘I’m tryna write for people who don’t read. Who don’t give a shit about books.’) It’s to this tradition that Fuccboi belongs and in which it succeeds. Conroe sums it up well in a line about the rapper Lil B and another artist: ‘For this, the subtlety of his subversion (where you couldn’t, like with Bolaño, quite decide “whether or not he was an idiot”), Lil B was the goat.’ I feel you, bro.

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