“‘But…’ Terror replied. ‘But we meshed tongues the other day – ’
‘Yeah! And?’ Caldonia fired back. ‘Just cos we tickled tonsils it doesn’t mean you’ve got a receipt to claim my ass. Do I have an Amazon label on my butt?’
I studied Caldonia’s bumper – I gave it eleven outta ten.”
I’ll get back to Terror (a.k.a. Terry), Caldonia Lake and Briggy – he’s the narrator – and their dialogue in a moment. First, though, some idea of plot in this latest tale from Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Estate (his Crongton Knights won the 2016 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize). Home’s not good for Briggy. Mum and Dad are always fighting; Mum’s often late home from work and Dad’s sure her boss, Mr Randall friggin Cassidy, is the reason why. Briggy’s older bruv Kingsley’s got a job which out-of-work Dad rubbishes because it’s only “zero-hours crap”. Kingsley spits back at him, “You lazy prick of a bitch”. Kingsley wants out – he’s pissed-off with Mum and Dad “cursing the tonsils outta each other”. School’s no better than Home. Caldonia, “the coolest chick in our year” (that’s Year 10), tells Briggy and his best bredren, Terror, “you two aren’t shit-hot at anything…Squiddly-squat. Nothing.” She’s right. What’s worse, too often for Briggy’s liking, she and Terror “pressed lips and bent tongues like they were auditioning for Fifty Shades of Crongton.”
Stung by Caldonia’s not-shit-hot-at-anything appraisal, Terror announces – out of nowhere – a plan to impress. He and Briggy, he says, are going to jack the Post Office on Crongton Broadway. They’ll borrow Han Solo Laser Blasters from Terror’s liccle cousins. Caldonia’s quick to get in on the mission – maybe she’ll be their look-out. That’s how it all starts.
But it’s that dialogue which makes this book unlike others. Alex Wheatle writes about creating his characters in an online writing magazine. His top priority is to give a character “an engaging, entertaining and fresh voice”; the opening lines of this review offer a glimpse of that. To find such voices, he’s “collected cool phrases, slang from all corners of the UK and beyond, slices of dialogue from a variety of sources that include hip hop culture, reggae dance hall culture, Hollywood film noir of the 1940s and 1950s and even quotes that I have overheard on a train journey from Glasgow to Inverclyde.” Kerb Stain Boys, he says, is written in film noir style, with debts to writers (of screenplays as well as novels) such as Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder.
Alex Wheatle’s dialogue is extraordinary in its originality; and it provokes speculation. So what follows are open questions, not criticisms. Barrington Stoke suggest the novel has a Reading Age of 8, but also claim it’s ‘Super-readable YA’ – Briggy and Co, remember, are around 15. On the book’s final page, the publishers say that “our books are tested for children and young people by children and young people”. What did those young ‘testers’ make of dialogue which frequently uses language they’ve never heard spoken? Did they feel they constantly had to work at understanding, having to ‘translate’, if you like? Or did they find themselves at ease with the Crongton argot after a few pages? Does it make a difference if they don’t come from an urban environment themselves? Did some readers feel bewildered, even excluded? Or were they excited to find – at last – something very different from what they’ve usually found in fiction?
Terror, Caldonia and Briggy speak Wheatle’s language as a kind of native tongue. Could young readers tell one from another through their speech? Does dialogue work here as a way of creating an individual character?
Then what did they make of the sudden happy ending? Things look grim for Terror and Briggy – months in detention centres for both of them. Six pages later as the story ends, Luck’s kissed both their asses and Terror’s suddenly “a top ranking actor” and Briggy’s a table tennis star for a team from a posho leisure centre. And all because Caldonia Lake told them they were shit-hot at squiddly squat. They agree: “What a chick.”