I almost gave this book a pass. Author Dominic Knight is on the writing team of ABC’s The Chaser and was a regular contributor to the SMH. I felt certain that the book would approach romance with cynicism and biting sarcasm and just generally take the piss out of the genre.
I was wrong. I loved this book.
Two things convinced me to request an ARC of Disco Boy. First, I’ll never forget this piece that Knight wrote for the SMH championing the romantically inept man. I have a soft spot for dork-boys. Second, I read the first 3 chapters. Oh, my god, I thought, I know these people!
Paul Johnson is an overeducated underachiever who works as a low-rent party DJ, eschewing corporate life in pursuit of a musical career. In theory—because he hasn’t actually made any music during the 2 years he’s been pumping up the jam at weddings, RSL clubs and cruises. Meanwhile, the lure of the “grown up” career beckons as he sees his mate Nigel and ex-coworkers wallowing in all their corporate glory. Plus, Paul’s all too aware that DJing gives him zero bragging rights with the ladies.
So when he’s kicked out of a gig after accidentally playing ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ at a party, he finds it all too easy to accept an offer to return to his old law firm as a part-time paralegal.
Suddenly, Paul’s faced with more choices than he can manage—professionally and personally. Felicity, a promising young lawyer who had seemed out of his league, is now showing him some interest. Then there’s Emily, who’s fun to be with but might be just a tad too young. Phil, his old boss, wants him back in the DJ business. His parents want him to settle into a “proper” job and find a nice girl. His best friend Zoë wants to know what the hell he’s doing. And Paul? He has no idea.
The Aussie bloke as a romantic (beta) hero
Paul is pretty much every guy I knew at uni. He’s very much the beta hero, and I loved him! He doesn’t have the smooth lines to pick up chicks—and he knows it—but he gets by with witty banter and, when it comes down to it, general good-guyness. The central romantic question—that is, which girl should he go for?—reflects Paul’s broader problem about what he wants out of life. I really liked how Knight deals with this. The women aren’t perfect but they’re not horrible, and Paul treats them well. He has a conscience and he listens to it. My god, what’s not to love?
Even when it looks like Felicity might be interested in him, Paul doesn’t get cocky. This conversation between Paul and Zoë pretty much sums it up:
“You should have been more confident, Paulie. I always tell you: beautiful girls do it tough. Nice guys like you never approach them. They’re too intimidated.”
“That sounds like me—the intimidated bit, anyway.”
“…Look, if a guy’s good at picking up girls … he often won’t value the one he’s got because it all came so easily…. Whereas for you, the whole process is sheer torture, and you’re so relieved when you actually get anything happening that you treat the poor girl well, right?”
“Out of terror she’ll find someone better and bugger off, yeah.”
What interested me most about this book was reading about Paul’s insecurities and his befuddlement when it comes to interpreting signals from the women. Don’t worry: it’s all done very intelligently. Paul is insecure in the way that any average person has insecurities. Nothing feels exaggerated or done for cheap laughs.
Paul Johnson vs Dominic Knight
The downside of reading a book that so closely resembles real life is that you wonder how much of the story, particularly the main character, is in fact the author. For the entire novel, I kept picturing Knight as the protagonist and while this didn’t alter my enjoyment of the book, it just felt … weird. I kept wondering if the women in the story were real, if the secondary characters were real, and I kept having to remind myself that the book is a work of fiction.
Another thing I love about this book is the way it portrays the 3 main female characters. Emily, Felicity and Zoë are all independent, sexually confident women who know their own worth.
Disco Boy is kind of the anti-chick-lit book in a way. The women who are upfront about what they feel and think are viewed positively; those who give out mixed signals, though still desirable, aren’t glorified. Again, it’s all done with a lot of humour and more gentleness and subtlety than I was expecting. It was lovely. Knight also reveals a good working knowledge of, um, how shall I say this, girlie interests. Take this conversation he has with Emily:
“…don’t worry, I don’t want to be serious or exclusive or anything, it’s just that I wanted to see you again, you know?”
Exclusive? God, I was having enough trouble organising one girl let alone juggling a whole tribe of them. It occurred to me, and not for the first time, that Sex and the City really has an awful lot to answer for. But “not exclusive” gave me all sorts of ways of backing out so I told her that worked for me.
“Good, I’m glad we’ve got that sorted out,” she said. “Cos, you know, Harry keeps saying you were just using me for sex.”
“No, Em, god—”
“Well not just sex, I hope, anyway! Not that I necessarily mind if you were. I mean, it was fun, you know.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it was great.”
Just typing that cracked me up.
Sex, Aussie bloke style
I was soooo looking forward to discovering how Knight would describe sex, but the bedroom door was firmly shut in my face. In fact, Knight invokes the dreaded B-word:
Sex scenes in books are always strange…. When you’re a teenager, you’re desperate to read everything you can about sex, to give some shape to powerful desires you can barely control. But the words they use, like “penetrating”, “thrusting” and “engulfed”, give the whole event this sombre air that really isn’t right for it. The same words are used to talk about war, and that bears no relationship to what happens in a bedroom…. So I won’t describe in precise technical detail what Emily and I did that night—there’s no way of writing about it without sounding like a parody of a Mills & Boon bodice-ripper. But believe me, there was nothing parodic about the experience at all.
I can’t even begrudge Knight the lack of sex scenes when he puts it that way.
Still, I can’t help but feel that Knight ought to read at least one good genre romance book with good sex scenes—maybe a Crusie?—before he gives up on writing them altogether. Sex is, after all, a very important part of a relationship, and I would’ve loved to have seen how sex with the right girl changes the experience.
I do wonder what overseas readers would think of Paul, because he’s nothing like your typical romance hero (alpha, beta or gamma). He lives at home, he’s not really very motivated, and he probably drinks a little too much for his own good. It all sounds rather unattractive, and yet it’s so normal to me. This is what Aussie guys do—at least, they do in their 20s and maybe even beyond. (I think Wandergurl would argue that the drinking thing never actually stops.) Almost every guy I had a crush on at uni fit this mould. Clearly, I’m easily charmed.
Much of the humour in the book is observational. He nails the way relationships are typically started in Australia:
Here, there’s really only one socially acceptable way to get your girl, at least when you’re my age. You go out in a common group of friends, and everyone has enough to drink that it all comes tumbling out. And if you stuff it up, or choose the wrong person, you’ve a ready-made excuse in the amount you drank. Everyone’s done it, so no one has the right to judge it.
Paul’s analysis of how a good DJ works a party, and his constant digs at pop music and those who love it—or, worse, dance to it—are hilarious. His frustration at ambiguous signals from women provide much fodder for amusement:
She signed her message with a little “x”. And who could say what that little kiss symbol meant? Was it a chaste peck on the cheek between friends, or something full-blooded and passionate? Don’t girls know how confusing this stuff is for us guys?
…and the same goes when a woman you like writes “love” at the end of an email. Your heart may flutter for a moment, but I’ve learnt the hard way that it doesn’t mean she loves you. And that when you immediately email back “I love you too. Thank god one of us was finally brave enough to put it out there,” you can expect a phone call within about ten seconds.
Then, too, there are the secondary characters. The way Paul and his friends rile each other up was fun to read. There’s no bonding through contact sports or anything so strenuous—it’s poker nights and rounds at the local pub. Paul’s friend Nigel is drunk or about to get drunk in almost every scene he’s in, and yet he’s surprisingly likeable. At the start of the book I wondered why Paul would keep hanging out with someone who seemed so unlike him, until I realised that Paul basically surrounds himself with relatively decent people. Even his DJ boss, Phil, for all that he’s rather anal, comes across as someone who means well.
The case for locally written romances
I’d love it if I could find more books like Disco Boy on the shelves. It’s so refreshing to read something that reflects my experiences and those of my friends’. I think this is why I tend to read paranormals and historicals—because it’s hard for me to find contemporary romances that I can relate to, when they’re almost always set in the US or targeted to an older audience. The only other author I’ve found who captures the essence of what it’s like to be in your 20s living in Sydney, looking for love, and feeling the pressure to make grown up decisions about the future is Melanie La’Brooy. Technically, Knight and La’Brooy don’t even write genre romance—their focus is on the main character’s personal growth rather than the romance—but I’ll take what I can get.
Please, Aussie publishers, find us more authors who write good contemporary Australian romances.
Yay or nay?
This one’s a keeper. Disco Boy reminds me a little of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, but with less angst and a much more likeable, more self-aware hero. It’s very easy to read, and, although the book’s appeal rests on its main character, Knight gives most of the secondary players some depth when they could easily have become caricatures. I was utterly charmed.
I loved this book so much that I asked a guy friend to read it (and, hopefully, write a guest review). Oh, he said, I’ll do anything for a freebie. Uh, I said, rather embarrassed, I’d kind of like the book back because I love it and I want a copy of my own. In the end, we agreed that I’d shout him a hot chocolate—I’m thinking it has to be the Lindt Cafe—in recompense. That’s how much I loved this book.
There’s a link to the first 3 chapters of the book here (includes a dodgy video of the author). Dominic Knight will be appearing at various events in the Sydney Writer’s Festival. Check his website for details.