Tyrant Books, an indie publisher of exacting left-of-center fiction, has recently stepped to the forefront of progressive literature. In August, Nico Walker’s autobiographical novel “Cherry,” a Tyrant project sold to Knopf, met rapturous acclaim for its account of a decorated Iraq War medic’s metamorphosis into a heroin-shooting bank robber. A month later, Megan Boyle’s long-simmering autofiction experiment “Liveblog” left readers captivated and cowering with its lengthy portrayal of the author’s everyday exploits. Now there’s “Welfare,” a debut novel by Canadian writer Steve Anwyll that similarly eschews the bravado of literary fiction from major publishing houses, chronicling a teenage protagonist’s descent into state-sponsored decrepitude.
In conjuring an adolescent burnout, Anwyll might have taken cues from the slacker canon of westward-slouching beatniks and Kevin Smith antiheroes. Instead, his Stan Acker assumes the lineage of J.P. Donleavy’s Sebastian Dangerfield and John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius Reilly — although the comedy of “Welfare” is, by necessity, comparatively muted. A values-neutral indigent, Acker is a reflecting pool of human nature and dysfunctional institutions, casting their vagaries in grisly magnification. Where a more romantic ne’er-do-well might be afforded a comeuppance or redemption, Stan’s coming-of-age is precluded by the immediate needs of survival.
“Welfare” evokes poverty as a trial of rote drudgeries. Stan, a runaway, spends his days filling out forms and waiting to meet with apathetic caseworkers to secure his meager subsistence. He hitchhikes to distant factories, drops off job applications and is summarily jeered at for his shabby clothes and poor hygiene. He undertakes anxious attempts at tidying his noxious apartments, hoping that a government agent will deem him worthy of assistance rather than a degenerate lost cause.
Anwyll’s rhythmic prose is constructed of staccato, bullet-point sentences. Each four-line paragraph performs an equal narrative thrust, whether advancing the external plot or demonstrating Stan’s deepening malaise during his slide from loafing to begging and stealing. Stan is obsessed by the subtle degrees and manifestations of poverty, outlining an imperative hierarchy among delivery pizza, takeout trays, boxed mac and cheese and plain white rice. His roommate, supported by a Catholic charity rather than state welfare, might as well be a member of the leisure class. While the most self-pitying of Stan’s monologues approach melodramatic balladry, his penetrating observations of forlorn peers yield acute insights. Watching a friend roll a joint with expert precision, Stan reflects, “His older brothers taught him when he was a kid. The kind of thing that defines the rest of a life.”
Through its supporting cast, “Welfare” considers the pressures on those pushed against society’s margins. Bouncing between a succession of substandard living conditions, Stan encounters a rogues’ gallery of half-feral scammers, religious zealots and predatory landlords. Poor of money and spirit, the men and women cordoned into this social outskirt grow violent and defensive, resulting in gripping episodes of unforced irony. In an unforgettable scene, Stan is beaten senseless by his next-door neighbor, a self-identified Satanist, for entertaining a Mormon missionary who comes calling. Comrades pursue chaos for its own sake, drinking themselves into stupors and smoking cigarette after cigarette while staring at the ground beneath their feet. Still, Stan is eager for role models and seeks them in the most hopeless of environs. “I wonder what advice I’ve been missing out on,” he muses of his perpetual unemployment.
If Anwyll’s novel is an argument against welfare, there are no commonalities with Ronald Reagan’s infamous “welfare queen” stump speech. The scant assistance provided Stan’s cohort is the equivalent of papering over a massive wreck — a tacit acknowledgment that capitalism creates burdens that society can’t bear. Assuming that their tax dollars support Stan’s lifestyle, passing strangers hurl verbal abuse. Authorities range from compassionate to brutal disciplinarians, and while Stan doesn’t lack agency, he receives few favors.
In one disquieting sequence, he briefly enters “to not starve” and “pay the rent” under “Goals” on a digital résumé. Even in his direst hour, he is governed by a deliberate cost-benefit analysis. “It’d be a lot easier to just keep doing what I’m doing,” he reasons. “Which is nothing at all. My father’s advice of the least amount of work possible guiding my decisions.” Exasperated by cycles of conspicuous consumption, he is incredulous that reliance upon a corporate employer would offer him greater freedom.
Stan’s desperation turns quotidian acts such as eating a sandwich and cashing a check into propulsive high-stakes drama, rendering the prospect of a Caulfield-esque breakdown literally unaffordable. Like Walker’s “Cherry,” “Welfare” is a relentless Sinclairian censure, exposing a society so fundamentally broken that full-scale upheaval seems the only solution. Yet neither the politics nor characters of these books are radical in any real sense: Their resonance lies in that these fates might befall any of your neighbors or relatives.
Pete Tosiello is a writer and critic based in New York.
By Steve Anwyll
Tyrant. 256 pp. $15.95.