“Weird shit happens in the woods, right?” says Max Porter. Such as…? “Oh my whole childhood!” he grins. “I’d hang out in the trees with my mate. We’d hurt ourselves, set fire to things, bury milk bottles and fill them with those bangers you could get from France. Horrible little shits we were.”
On one occasion, the 42-year-old novelist recalls that – “for some unknown, gittish reason” – the pair decided to build a barrier across a minor road. “This was in the Chilterns,” he explains, “so there were steep chalky slopes either side of the tarmac and we realised we could almost make a wall. We got loads of sticks and then bigger and bigger branches.” They heard a car approach and brake. “There was silence then swearing. Then the guy climbed up the slope and delivered this incredible soliloquy of very accurate vitriol at us. He said: ‘I know you’re lying there, watching, you little fucking shits. I know you think this is funny and you’ve done something cool. But what you’ve actually done is fuck my afternoon up.’ Well, we were lying there, under the leaves, trying not to laugh. It was incredibly exhilarating and frightening. We genuinely thought we might be shot. Then we heard him bang and crash and huff and puff as he dismantled our wall. He honked his horn and shouted a final ‘Fuck You!’ out of his window. We were high as kites for hours.”
Porter was ten years old when he blocked that road. The protagonist of his fourth novel, Shy, is an older teenager. But elements of that wild, adult-thwarting rush make their way into this intense, genre-tangling tale of a boy skidding violently off the rails in the mid-1990s. It opens, in verse, with a kid hoiking a rucksack full of rocks onto his back at 3.13am, carrying a spliff “diagonal-snug” in an empty Embassy box:
“Shwooshtick-Shwooshtick, the electric meter like a slowly rewound break.
Caught between times. In the fold. Escaping.
Little Shy at thirteen o’clock with the last of his skunk and his favourite tape. Boy on the stairs, stepping through. Tom’s Midnight Garden. That’s what it feelslike, fuckinell that’s exactly it. He hasn’t thought about that book for years.”
Shy, we quickly learn, has been removed from the home he shared with his tender, thoughtful mother and decent stepfather to a home for troubled teens housed in a crumbling heritage manor house. Porter gives us snapshots of the antisocial behaviour that led to this relocation. Smashed equipment in a school science lesson. The drunken destruction of family photographs at the nice, middle-class home of family friends. “Gill and Michael in Paris, Gill and Michael in Corfu, a framed poster saying 99% CHANCE OF WINE, a calendar with garden birds […] he punches the whole wall of pictures fast and hard like the game at the fair whacking pop-up heads, knuckles bleeding, one deep cut with a tiny cube of glass embedded.”
A former bookseller and publisher, Porter made his name in 2015 with his award-winning short book Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Adapted by Enda Walsh into a play starring Peaky Blinders’ Cillian Murphy for the Barbican in 2019, it told the story of a Ted Hughes scholar whose wife has suddenly and mysteriously died. Into the bereaved family’s life skips a sarky-smart crow who insists on getting in their faces “until you don’t need me any more”.
Like Shy, the book playfully spliced prose and poetry, grubby vernacular and cosmic hope. It had its roots in Porter’s own childhood bereavement (his father died when he was six) and in his “obsessive” reading of Ted Hughes’ animal poems, which he notes “were so far ahead of their time in attributing an emotional complexity and range to the non-human, allowing animals to be charming, witty, spiteful, unsolved…”
Looking back on Grief’s publication, Porter recalls feeling rather removed from the fuss about where the book “belonged” in bookshops. “My publisher [Faber] thought they’d print maybe 600 copies. My kids were so young I had a job. I was too busy to care about the things that would have obsessed a novelist at other times. When people asked: is it prose or poetry? I was like: put it on whichever shelf you want, I don’t fucking care! And it turns out readers don’t care either. So they found it in ‘memoir’? So what!”
After Grief came out, Porter wasn’t sure he’d want to write another book. But then he says he felt a “compulsion” to write his Booker-longlisted 2019 novel Lanny (a weird rural fable about a missing child), while his 2021 book The Death of Francis Bacon was “an experiment” which allowed him to work through his long-running fascination with the artist. The impulse to put Shy on the page came after a lockdown dream. “I wrote it in a dream state and then edited it very slowly.”
Porter had been mulling themes of “unhappy teenagers, unhappy men, the epidemic of male suicide in this country”. He felt there was “work I could do in that direction.” He tells me that his older brother was “a very unhappy teenager who got into trouble, although nothing like Shy.” And he drew on “lots of people I knew or read about to create the character.”
Readers who grew up in the 1990s will catch distorted echoes of the era in Shy’s love of drum‘n’bass music. He defines himself as “a junglist”. Porter explains he “wanted to apply the same intensity, and attention to suburban electronic music culture as I applied to trees in Lanny. I wanted to see if I could write about the less pleasant stuff: the violence, homophobia and the relentless banter with the same musicality.”
While Hughes’ influence still pecks at the line breaks, poetry fans may also notice that Porter owes a debt of scope and vigour to Christopher Logue, perhaps best known for his reworkings of the Iliad in his collections War Music (1981), Kings (1991) and The Husbands (1995). “It’s funny you mention that,” nods Porter, “because I just wrote the introduction to a collection of Logue’s poems that a friend translated. I love that joie de vivre relationship he had with form and volume. He was a film director and conductor and pornographer – on the mixing desk of all classics at all times. When it came to writing this book I knew at times I’d have to ‘go Logue’.”
The late poet’s subversion of the written form encouraged Porter to include a section where Shy and his mother are attempting to communicate but their words literally tumble down the gully between two pages. “When I asked my brother about the time he was unwell he said that the kind things my mother said just became white noise. Just completely inaudible parental pain beaming at him. He couldn’t understand a word. And my parents said the same thing. I wanted to put that feeling in the physical fabric of the book. Like a break in the universe.”
Porter’s American publisher likes to describe Shy as the “riddle of why a smart, loved kid curdles into male violence.” Porter notes “the book isn’t a trauma plot. Shy doesn’t have a dad who we learn on page 94 was an alcoholic who was cruel.” The boy’s chaos and anger is as much a mystery to himself as to all the intelligent, compassionate people trying to help him. Porter has been surprised that readers are “more receptive to Shy than I expected. I’m much harsher on him. I think he’s very, very spoiled and needs to stop smoking so much weed, buck up and wash more.” But he also resists passing judgement on the character’s self-destructive tendencies. There’s a part of him that “wants to say fuck off to everybody and everything on behalf of these kids”.
Porter had been mulling themes of “unhappy teenagers, unhappy men, the epidemic of male suicide”
“I’ve got a friend who’s anorexic and conversations with her, about being your own worst enemy, were very useful to me. Somebody recently told her: ‘Well the thing is you’re just going to have to eat.’” He rolls his eyes. “She’s like: ‘Thank you so much. I had no idea it was food I had a problem with! What insight!’”
At a pivotal moment in the book, Shy’s fate is changed by a bizarre and gory encounter with woodland creatures. At this moment the boy is carrying a collection of 600-million-year-old flints whose geological context puts his own fleeting drama into perspective. Porter tells me that: “The cathartic, spiritual benefits of understanding deep time only hit me quite recently. You know, the idea that Nelson’s column is the history of the planet and human life is one file shaving on his fingernail? I don’t know how that can make you feel anything other than fantastically less pissed off at… say… Boris Johnson. As a tree worshipper I have some of that anyway. I look at a 500-year-old pine that’s a monster from the deep allowing us to breathe, and” – he whoops away the cares of the street – “hahahahaha wooooo! Whoosh! Doesn’t matter!”
Porter is a rock collector himself. He has a huge display cabinet in his house boasting “500 apertures” and tells me his proudest find is a chunk of Lewisian gneiss (at 3,000 million years old one of the world’s oldest rocks) which he found hiking in Scotland. Then he pivots his webcam to show me the long line of spherical rocks he has collected with his sons, including a musket ball one of them picked up on a Welsh beach. “It had probably been through the guts of some poor sod before lying in the mud until we pocketed it”.
After tumbling through an equally mucky and disorienting journey, Porter spits Shy out into a strangely euphoric ending. He’s been accused of sentimentality in the past, but he tells me he feels “well armoured against that” because he’s witnessed moments as tearjerking as those he invents. Over lockdown he took his kids to sing with a local group outside a care home. “The old women inside pressed themselves up against the windows and the snot and tears just ran down the window as the children sang louder and louder.” He shakes his head. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. So if people struggle with the sentimental chord in my writing? Well, I think it’s as real as all the horror and pain and anxiety to which it’s related.”
“Shy” by Max Porter came out on 6 April (128pp, Faber, £12.99, hb)
Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail