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Posted on 18 Jun 2024 in Fiction |

BEL SCHENK The Most Famous Boy In Town. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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Bel Schenk’s deceptively simple novel of a teenage boy’s response to a small-town scandal has a lot to say about gender relations.

The Most Famous Boy in Town is the first novel from Bel Schenk, a Melbourne-based poet with three published poetry collections. It has a simple storyline that examines the fraught ramifications of toxic masculinity in a football-obsessed coastal town.

In a beautiful opening chapter, Ryan, the young protagonist, falls from a boat into the sea when a humpback whale breaches beside it. In a dreamlike sequence, he circles underwater beside the whale, who gazes at him. Ryan surfaces, unsure whether what he has experienced has been real.

Then a blob of darkness, but soon he understood. She swam next to him. He raised a hand to the white lines of her underside, the sheer extent of her. He followed, mixed a mad kick with the smooth breaststroke of his arms. As he swam, his panic vanished and turned into a sense of pure serenity.

Time didn’t matter – nothing did. He dived deeper and he thought that his breath was endless. Now he was under her and he knew that if she did anything – breach, lower herself, open her mouth – he would be done for, but this was everything.

Ryan plays in the local football team where, as in life, he plays second fiddle to his brother Lucas, the team’s star forward, who is expected to lead them to a grand final victory. The grand final is a big event in town and a football scout is expected. Lucas is so confident of his career as an AFL star that he can barely contemplate any other future for himself.

The week of the game there is a beach party attended by most of the football team and town youngsters. Everyone gets drunk, and Ryan walks in on his brother in a compromising position with his girlfriend, Hannah. But what has he really seen?

Afterwards he walks along the beach with his girlfriend, Zahra:

‘Do you think Hannah is okay? Did Lucas dump her?’

‘Yeah, maybe.’ It was too soon to tell Zahra anything. Besides, he wasn’t sure there was anything to tell.

When they passed the rocks they saw it. Adjacent to the shore, a massive dark mass lay on the tideline, and waves hurled over it.

‘What the fuck?’ Ryan ran. He chose the harder sand.

Zahra followed, shouting, ‘Oh my god.’

They ran towards it with the wind at their front making it much more difficult, like dreams where you can’t move fast enough. When they got closer they forced themselves to slow for the final steps. Instinctively, Ryan held out his arms in a movement that said don’t go any further.

It was a whale.

Emergency services are called and the town begins a rescue mission. The whale is returned to the sea, but Ryan continues to wonder about what he witnessed earlier in the evening.

Rumours start spreading on social media about Lucas as Hannah comes to terms with what occurred. Lucas and Ryan’s mother, Julia, falls out with her best friend, a reporter who is following the story of what happened to Hannah and contemplating writing it up in the local newspaper.  The town divides and turns in on itself as outsiders try to find out what has happened.

As others struggle to discern the truth, and as his parents start to fall apart. Ryan slowly begins to engage with Hannah, as well as with his own feelings for his brother.

Lucas took a step back. ‘They make shit up. They change their minds. Every chick in this town’s a fucking slag. Your girlfriend too.’

It was easier than it should have been. Ryan didn’t plan it or go through the motion beforehand. He simply threw his arm back and punched Lucas on the cheek.

In reading this story I became fascinated by the whale. In Moby Dick the whale is a metaphor for a being that is unconcerned with the pain of humanity; in the bible, the story of Jonah and the whale is seen a precursor to the resurrection. Here, Schenk asks:

‘What hope for a whale, a girl, a town?’  

I do see this as a moral fable, but one where right, if not wrong, is ambiguous. Many may find the ending, and Hannah, too pragmatic. However, I was greatly taken by the penultimate scenes of the grand final and the novel’s satisfying sense of justice for Ryan and for Lucas, again played out with biblical echoes.

Bel Schenk has written a moving story about secrets and betrayal in a small town that is suitable for both teenagers and adults.  As Australia grapples with sexual assaults, domestic violence and toxic workplaces, this is a sophisticated novel about gender relations deceptive in its simplicity and structure.

Bel Schenk The Most Famous Boy In Town Spineless Wonders Publishing 2024 PB 214pp $24.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian and you can find him as @larrydlibrarian on Instagram and Threads.

You can buy The Most Famous Boy In Town from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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