The Boy Next Door

Ross Raisin
Ross Raisin
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Sunday, August 31, 2008; Page BW06


By Ross Raisin

Harper Perennial. 211 pp. Paperback, $13.95

Ross Raisin's first novel, Out Backward, shares the same landscape as Wuthering Heights, but don't get the wrong idea. Heathcliff is a mascot these days, not a menace, and the Yorkshire moors have become cushy real estate. Londoners "loopy for farmhouses" have moved up in droves, eager to test the fresh manure in their Wellingtons. Sam Marsdyke, a local drop-out, takes this invasion in stride, even if he feels like a featured attraction. "I was real, living, farting Nature to their brain of things," he tells us, "part of the scenery same as a tree or a tractor."

For Sam, the mind is always a "brain," and the head is always a "skull." His dialect has an earthy cast that seduces us into his way of seeing. Raisin laces Sam's speech with the clanging consonants of the North. We can't stumble into his sentences without catching some verbal shrapnel: "blather- skite" substitutes for "gossip," "to fratchen" means "to argue" and "to gleg" means "to look," which makes the act of seeing sound like a desperate snatch of the eyeball.

When Sam welcomes some new London transplants next door, Josephine, the young woman in the family, takes an interest in him. Sam attracts her sympathy, and ours, with his uncanny ability to relate to animals. He's practically telepathic with sheep, shares the vengeful thoughts of a stuffed fox, and mimics the mental processes of a centipede.

Raisin captures the cadences of Sam's environment so exquisitely that we hardly notice when this rustic youth starts to conflate the human and animal worlds. He barely distinguishes, for instance, between teenagers making out in a parked car and sheep coupling at the farm. "She'd have tried to move off if she didn't like it," Sam says of a ewe being rutted by a ram. It's an especially presumptive statement, considering Sam's expulsion from school on molestation charges.

Raisin subtly shifts the novel from a pastoral comedy into a meditation on sociopathic self-justification. When Josephine proposes they kidnap a puppy, the amateur heist turns into an abduction of Josephine. Initially, she's more than willing to steal away into the moors, but soon Sam's filling in her thoughts as if she were another ewe: "You're stubborn as a sheep to dip, you are . . . come here give me your hands again."

Sam Marsdyke has already earned comparisons to Anthony Burgess's Singin'-in-the-Rain Alex, among other esteemed psychopaths. But Out Backward more convincingly registers the internal logic of unredeemable delinquency, a dangerous subjectivity that perverts compassion and sees everything as an extension of itself.

-- Thomas Meaney also reviews for the Wall Street Journal and Bookforum.

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