“INDIVIDUAL freedom, when it’s not connected to some sort of community, ends up feeling pretty meaningless,” singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen once remarked and that comment captures the essence of SJ Bradley’s second novel Guest.
It tells the story of Samhain (Sam), a likeable, thoughtful and morally consistent young man but one prone to capricious emotions and self-destructive behaviour.
He has two problems — he discovers that his father was a police agent provocateur who infiltrated the Green movement and deceived his mother into a sexual relationship and he learns he is the father of a two-year-old daughter.
Unwilling to make accommodations with the straight world, he hates its dishonesty, dog-eat-dog morality and its obsession with money. Bradley depicts Sam’s chaotic childhood and shambolic adult life with affection and honesty.
It’s a world of squats, punk bands, anti-globalisation protests, police harassment, vegan food and transient relationships.
The author’s anarcho-punks have integrity, but she leaves the reader with no illusions about the physical discomforts and emotional turmoil they endure.
The novel begins with Sam and his friend Frankie taking possession of an abandoned hotel and moves on to their disastrous tour of European squats in a post-punk band.
These misadventures, which provide the impetus for Sam’s journey into a personal heart of darkness, are written with tremendous wit, empathy and vividness — you can feel the crammed interior of the tour van, hear the band’s rasping vocals and smell the unwashed bodies of the audiences.
The final segment of the story shows Sam’s attempt to rebuild his life and establish a relationship with his daughter.
He has to come to terms with the manipulative ruthlessness of his birth father and the existence of his half-siblings.
And he must find a way of life enabling him to participate in society without compromising his dissident beliefs and revolutionary instincts.
Guest draws on the true story of infiltration of radical groups by shadowy police groups such as the Special Demonstration Squad and captures the messy thrills of the punk, DIY and anti-globalisation movements in a controlled, accessible style.
A tightly honed work of dirty realism with convincing characters and richly developed settings, Guest is an entertaining and life-affirming work with important things to say about protest, resilience and the idea that “successful” living depends on an ability to share in the lives of others.