When James Hanley died in 1985, the Times titled his obituary “Neglected Genius of the Novel”. Until recently this situation continued to persist, but since his death his works have steadily gained the posthumous recognition he deserves. As Anthony Burgess remarks in his introduction to a reprint of Hanley’s 1931 novel Boy in reference to the Times obituary, “the geniuses who are neglected are usually those who disturb, and we do not like to be disturbed”.
Hanley was not a writer endowed with a light, playful style: his language was visceral, sharp; his observation keen and uncompromising. And indeed, he had the power to disturb. In the first edition of Boy, the most risqué bits are covered with asterisks. The 1934 reprint was also deemed obscene, and then suppressed for decades. It has since been reprinted by Oneworld Classics to great critical acclaim.
Hanley clearly did not set out to shock readers for the sake of it or to enhance his reputation, but to represent reality – one that could be brutal and dehumanizing. Although he later claimed that the tragic story of Arthur Fearon – the ‘boy’ of the title – was not autobiographical, Hanley is certainly drawing upon his own experiences: his upbringing in Liverpool, where poverty and unemployment was rife; the frustration of having intelligence and ambition but no means of escape; the harshness of work at the docks and life at sea.
Arthur, a smart and sensitive boy, is forced to leave school by his desperately poor parents just before he turns thirteen. Initially sent to the docks, he cannot stand the dangerous and humiliating work there and stows aboard a ship in the hope of reaching America. Instead he is on a ship bound for Alexandria and beyond, and when discovered by the crew is put to work until they can bring him ashore. From then on, Fearon’s life follows a tragic path, until the novel reaches its fatal conclusion.
Young Fearon’s story of abuse and innocence lost in an unforgiving world is well observed and very real. Boy provides the modern reader with a non-sensational, unromantic depiction of the lives of dockhands, sailors and child-labourers. Hanley gives voice to everyday people in constrained circumstances, creating real characters who, despite their failings, are not entirely without humour. His portrayal of people who are unable to break free of their social constraints and even resent intelligence and education – thus perpetuating their misfortune onto their own children – has not lost its power to shake.
Boy – which the author once claimed to have written in ten days – lacks the polish of The Closed Harbour and other Hanley novels. However, this only adds to the force and realism of the novel, and makes it an outstanding and memorable piece of fiction.