IAIN RYAN The Student. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
The Student is fast-paced, dry as dust, gritty Australian regional noir.
The Student is set around a university campus in Gatton, Queensland, in 1994. Nat is a student dealing weed supplied by Jesse, another student and friend. Between them they have a very good business going – to the detriment of their studies, which have become incidental to both of them.
At least they had a good business, until Jesse dropped out of sight and supply dried up. Now Nate’s phone won’t stop ringing and a couple of bikies have arrived at his place with a proposition he can’t ignore:
Their names are Dennis and Hatch and my caravan looks crowded with them in it. Dennis is the bear. Hatch is the one with the rifle.
… Hatch leans over to my ear and whispers, ‘The way we see it. You go and find Jesse or you cover his debts.’ Hatch slaps the table by my face. ‘That was a question, arsehole.’
Told from Nate’s point of view, this is another out of control phase in a life that’s teetered on the edge for years. With a sick mother, his brother Ray dead, and his parents in crippling debt that he’s trying to help pay off, university life for Nate hasn’t gone to plan. His seemingly straightforward move from the halls of residence to a run-down, but free, caravan in a park run by a customer has made him even more of an outsider. The disappearance of Jesse feels as if it will be explained somewhere in the middle of the drug dealing with a fellow competitor in the field, but there are also some complicated love affairs lurking, a murdered girl called Maya Kibby and a suitcase full of stuff that makes Nate realise he’s in deeper than he could ever have imagined.
Nate is no innocent – he’s a kid who’s seen a lot in his short life, and he has plans, even if Business Studies at university doesn’t rate that highly in them. The more he looks for Jesse, the more he discovers about a lot of people around him, and the more his world view is shaken. It’s a common trope in noir-styled novels but The Student gives it an immediacy and an intimacy that’s powerful. It’s saying a lot about the human condition, but doing it in the language and via the viewpoint of a central character who’s surprisingly naïve given his background:
This is the big lesson I learned at university: forgetting is a type of debt. Last year, I was living a precarious life, surveying the world as if I’d forgotten that people can change as quickly as markets; that new sides of situations can appear without contingency; that things aren’t always as they seem. I somehow forgot that dark incentives sit beneath the surface of people. And I know it’s crazy – so, so crazy – in light of what I’ve lived through with my brother and my mother. But I think that might be it: I was naïve by design. I wanted things to be straightforward for once, like before Ray died. I wanted to win. And I wanted money. What I really wanted was supply and demand without moral complication, and that never happens. There’s always a price where those two things intersect. There’s always a cost when history meets the present.
This is the voice of a business student, a kid who’s discovered some shocking things about his brother, mates, girlfriends and life-long friends. One who has seen some things in the world that you wouldn’t expect in a university in Gatton, Queensland, even if you are a weed-dealing almost-university-drop-out. Yet, he’s a character it’s easy for readers to sympathise with. Obviously living outside the straight and narrow, the ways he is able to find things out and get into places he shouldn’t, would normally put him on the side of the bad. He’s not, though, nor is he a typical victim. There’s something touching, real and engagingly earnest about him that makes him sympathetic. He’s frustrating and initially obsessed with self-preservation seemingly at any cost, so it’s a relief to discover there is a point at which the cost becomes too much, and the things that have happened to his friends are too painful.
Mixed elegantly with the darker aspects of drug taking, dealing, exploitation and desperation are glimpses of student life that will ring some bells for those with share-houses and halls of residence in their backgrounds:
The house is a wreck. Mandy and Gemma have never been big on cleaning, but today they look a month overdue on having done anything at all: the dishes, the garbage, the laundry, the kitty litter.
I’m walking back down the hall when I see a guy watching me. It’s all girls upstairs at Pitt but he’s standing in the doorway of a room in his underwear, scratching himself like he’s just woken up.
Iain Ryan has crammed a lot into The Student. It’s dark, gritty and sharply focused. It uses the nature of a small town and the even tighter campus society within it to achieve a type of closed-room atmosphere to great effect. It makes some pointed observations about the day-to-day impacts of dealing as well as using drugs. It talks about sex, exploitation, violence, pornography, corruption and the cool, ruthless heads at the top, intent on making money no matter the cost, regardless of the consequences. It’s violent, graphic, no holds barred and peppered with imagery and language that make it required reading for fans of the blackest, darkest noir.
Iain Ryan The Student Echo Publishing 2017 PB 240pp $24.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
You can buy The Student from Booktopia here.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.