Steve Anwyll’s debut novel Welfare—dropped on Christmas Day by Tyrant Books—is a book that—much like its teenage narrator—takes an antagonistic stance against a lot of things. It is anti-purple prose. It is also an anti-coming-of-age novel, following a young character in that awkward adjustment stage between boy and man as he runs away from home to… find himself, maybe learn a couple life lessons? No. To live on welfare and avoid work and get high as much as possible. I said he was a seventeen-year-old boy, where else would this be going?
And I’m scared. And I don’t know if my plan is a sound one[…] But I am becoming an adult. Just a shittier one than our parents.
Now, let’s look at this book for what it is: a debut novel about a man teetering on that edge between child and adult, meandering jobless, getting high, making witty/cynical observations on a world he’s too young and ignorant to comprehend yet. It’s a story or trope or whatever-you-want-to-call-it that’s been told so many times before, it could be its own genre. Most of the time, yeah, these kinds of stories are so lifeless and whiney that you feel like picking up a blunt instrument and seeking vengeance for the trees who gave their lives for such mediocrity to exist on paper. What separates Welfare, though— and this is a testament to the skill of the author—is its honesty, its heart, and its careful balance between detachment from and immersion in the world of these young bums. It’s written in a way that your judgments of the characters are entirely your own. The narrator barely tries to defend his actions, while simultaneously avoiding too much self-deprecation. “It is what it is” seems to be the tone of the book.
Another thing Welfare has going for it is its level of authenticity. It feels like it was written by a seventeen-year-old boy, and that’s as scary as it is impressive, considering Anwyll is not a seventeen-year-old boy. I don’t think. He’s got a pretty thick beard, so… pretty sure he’s at least nineteen. Here, though, he’s tapped into that childlike naivety coupled with hormone-fueled rage that is all too uncomfortably familiar. And although we’re seeing things through the eyes of a frustrated teenager who maybe shouldn’t go back to his rough home life, but probably should get off his ass and get a job, the level of frustration that comes with living on welfare is nonetheless true to life. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but by telling this story from the perspective of an unapologetic leech, Anwyll is able to critique a faulty system from every angle, while also maintaining a sense of humor about it.
I fill in my name and address. Birth date. My education. And then it asks me for my work history. Which isn’t very long[…] For the first one, I write in fishmonger. And under duties I write down shoveling ice. Because after that I draw a blank. The only other things I ever remember doing is hiding between the large tubs filled with pickerel and ice to smoke a cigarette. Or sneaking to the bathroom to jerk off[…] Both of which I felt were better left out.
Every sentence, every paragraph, has a rhythm to it. I found myself at one point counting syllables, the way people on Rap Genius break down flow structure, but then I stopped myself because that’s pretty lame. The prose in this, though… it’s not as beige as Tao Lin, or quite as quip-filled and minimalist as Sam Pink. It’s close to being Bukowski’s blue-collar matter-of-factness (though Welfare is more like no-collar). It is all and none of these things. The influence is certainly there. But it’s not a knock-off or poor man’s version of anything. Anwyll has got a unique, approachable voice. If we’re using the “friend at a bar” analogy, he’s not the one patting the bar stool and ordering your rounds as he talks your ear off, or the one shouting belligerent from the center of a circle of people; he’s the one you want to look over and find has been sitting close by the whole night, waiting to share when you were ready to listen, when you were ready to escape all the other noise.
by Steve Anwyll
Tyrant Books; 257 p.