A devil worthy of sympathy
The Crimes of Billy Fish By Sarah Hopkins ABC Books, 294pp, $ 22.95
AFAIR way into this intelligent and compelling novel, first- time writer Sarah Hopkins makes a huge decision. It’s in the nature of reviews not to reveal what that decision entails, but suffice it to say it threatens to alienate the reader irrevocably.
I thought it was the wrong decision and I was deeply disappointed, because until then Hopkins had impressively maintained her nerve and continued her difficult course.
But then, even more impressively, she steers her way through the dangers she has created and her novel comes out the other side sounding sure, real and important.
The Crimes of Billy Fish begins with Billy coming up for parole. He’s in jail for a violent robbery; if he gets out early he’ll have to go on a methadone program and be tested regularly for drug use. Hopkins hints, from the start, that Billy will falter — indeed, fall spectacularly — but we don’t know when, why or how far.
Hopkins gradually, and effectively, builds up a profile of this Billy, and it’s tough reading. Billy and his sister Rose were the children of a violent father and alcoholic mother, the older boy trying to protect his sister from the worst of the abuse. When their mother dies in dreadful circumstances, Billy is 15 and he takes off to live on the streets.
A story like this, however well- intentioned, could become tainted by insincerity in so many ways. A child turned bad by the sins of the father, a man battling against a flawed and overworked system of punishment and rehabilitation: such a basis for a plot can easily become proof only of how caring the author is trying to be. It’s not pleasant, as a reader, to discover you’re being exploited into wanting so much for things to turn out all right when you don’t completely trust the writer. On the other hand, we don’t get many novels that deal convincingly, knowledgeably and sincerely with crime as a social problem, and Billy Fish scores well on all three counts.
And while we have descriptions of violent acts and a stomach- churning drug- taking episode, Billy Fish is not grunge fiction; there is absolutely no question that Billy’s drug and crimedominated life has negative glamour. But we need to be on his side if this is to work, and Hopkins, again, manages to tread this fine line between making us feel disgusted by our sympathy for a man who has done something very bad and making us believe empathy is possible.
This is not a polished novel and has not been worked through sufficiently for the mechanisms by which the story is moved along to become invisible. The low murmur of contrivance intrudes into some of the scenes, but never enough to distort the voices of Billy and his world. It’s a huge achievement to bring such people alive in the ordered, word- constructed world of literature.
Hopkins doesn’t choose the Roddy Doyle method of delivering the shock of rough lives in a vernacular style that disrupts conventional reading. She makes the rough reality work by not trying too hard to rub our noses in it. She has a very deft style, assured and economical.
The manner in which she builds the portrait of Rita, a woman who provides succour for Billy, much- needed humour for the story and a lifeline of hope for the reader, is delicate. Where Rita could have come out sounding like a stereotype from Neighbours , instead we gradually come to admire and care about her.
It would be fascinating to know where Hopkins got all this stuff from, but if it’s based on real people and events, the writer also understands that a book must stand alone, with an integrity independent of its source.
Something has to give in these few weeks we share with the sad and tragic Billy Fish; but what Hopkins decides to throw at us is very disturbing and almost made this reader not want to go on. But I’m glad I did, because the ending is rich with hope, and inspiring.