'A normal man,' he says, 'wouldn't have gone to another man's room like that with a wrench and attacked a man in his sleep.'
'I know that,' I say.
There is something wrong with Patrick Oxtoby. Or rather, I suspect, that would be the present-day medical opinion. Here is a young protagonist who finds it difficult to form relationships, who interprets ordinary acts of kindness or politeness as sexual overtures, and who commits sudden acts of violence without the ordinary remorse that should follow. I can imagine the multiple diagnoses he would receive: borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, even perhaps an autistic spectrum disorder. None of these labels are applied to him in M.J. Hyland's This is How. On the contrary. Hyland offers us Patrick, in his own words, without preconceptions attached; that she is able to do so is a demonstration of her powerful talents of restraint and empathy. Whether we see him as mentally ill or socially awkward or simply misunderstood is a matter for our interpretation alone: Hyland is a grandmaster of the old creative writing maxim 'show, don't tell'. Which is why a novel that is stylistically plain to the point of transparency, proves itself to be such a complex and moving riddle of action and emotion.
We first meet Patrick at a point of crisis in his life. He has dropped out of university to become a car mechanic, much to everyone's disappointment; and his fiance has left him because of an inability to express his emotions. His difficulty in that respect, he admits, is that he 'didn't have that many'. In an attempt to get away he has removed to a local seaside town - an ordinary sort of place, with pubs and cafes and not much else to recommend it - taken up residence in a boarding house and got a quiet job at a local garage. He brings barely anything with him, except his toolkit which he guards over with pensive obsession and an aura of psychological disturbance. It is impossible not to sense the latter. The hyper-present first-person in which the novel is narrated forces the reader, trembling, right into the epicentre of Patrick's palpable disequilibrium. He is a seething mass of nerves, uncertainties and misinterpretations. At the boarding house he worries incessantly over what his landlady and his fellow boarders think of him. The former inspires a childish desire to please mixed with a pornographic sexual desire - entirely inappropriate, and hardly reciprocated - while the latter simultaneously repels and attracts him. He wants their friendship, but cannot trust them, even hates them. Seen through Patrick's eyes what we might interpret asordinary behaviours become garish, suggestive, humiliating. Everyone is a threat; everyone is laughing, sniggering, pretending. Seeing the world like this, through Patrick's eyes, is quickly exhausting. No wonder he takes every opportunity to drown his panic with drink, or with pathetic fantasies about the older woman, Georgia, who works at the local cafe.
It is impossible not to tense up and twitch as you read, because you know you are waiting for something bad to happen. The world of This is How is not benign; Patrick is a character balanced on a knife edge and there is only really one way he could ever fall. When he murders fellow-boarder Welkin over a simple misunderstanding, in a moment of pure thoughtless rage, it is a blessed relief, a sort of exorcism. Hyland has built up such a dam of anticipation that it is joy to flood over it to the other side. And, truly, the novel after the crime is almost a different book, and Patrick a different protagonist. It is as though the threatening, unpredictable aspect of his character has been controlled, channelled, through the act of violence - we have had our cathartic release and what is left is more interesting, more complex than anticipated. It is a credit to Hyland that she didn't make the murder the denouement of the book because, skilled as she is at writing to inspire dread, she is better still at the confusion and mental disjunction Patrick experiences in the aftermath and during his time in prison.
What is it like to be guilty of a murder? It is fascinating that Patrick doesn't really know, despite having the insight of a perpetrator. It takes him some time to recognise what he has done as a reality, but once he has accepted it, he doesn't descend (as might be expected) into a pit of remorse. On the contrary, he is not really sorry; it isn't that simple an emotion. He is ashamed, or rather embarrassed, at having made a momumental mistake: he didn't mean to kill Welkin, and doesn't consider himself guilty as such. And if he connects at all with the reality that a man is dead, a man whose life he has utterly wasted, it is only in the most remote and tentative of ways. He thinks:
I should have pleaded to manslaughter. I might have got five or six years. I could have been out before I'm thirty. Whenever I think of what's gone on, a constant repetitive chain of thoughts, it's the desperate feeling of embarrassment that gets me most upset. I've been a first-class idiot and, even though there's nobody in the cell, when I recall that night, going into Welkin's room, going back out to get the wrench, I turn red, a hot and raging shame that crawls over my skin and it sickens me.
A first class idiot. That phrase struck me especially, and encapsulates my impression of Patrick: he may be a murderer, but he is a naive, passive sort of murderer. The sort of murderer you can't really blame. Which probably makes him the most dangerous sort of murderer but, nevertheless, enormously sympathetic. No doubt Patrick wouldn't get the harsh treatment he gets by the court system if he were tried today. It is one of the subtleties of the novel that Hyland makes it a period piece - This is How is set in the late 1960s/early 1970s, not too long after the death penalty was abolished and before there was much leniency for diminished responsbility or mitigating circumstance. Now he would have a psychological analysis as a matter of course; in the novel he visits a psychologist only as part of an experimental programme after sentencing and there is no outcome. The psychologist isn't the hero of the piece, come to explain Patrick to himself and to us; she is just another woman for him to fantasise over and, in his own way, to love.
It might surprise you to learn that, despite the sickening build-up, and the murder, and the prison with its inevitable abuses, one of the most enduring impressions of the book is a species of hope. In the beginning there doesn't seem much of a place in the world for a man like Patrick. He isn't made to fit his life: too clever for his family; too repressed for his girlfriend; too taciturn for a small-town job; but too suspiscious and helpless and aggressive to change any of it. The murder gives him a place in the world, gives him a role and offers the sort of narrow, controlled and controlling relationships that he can manage. It is horrific, I know, but Hyland plants the thought deep in her book - killing Welkin is possibly the best thing Patrick could have done for himself, for the sake of his own comfort:
I don't tell Gardam the truth. Truth is, now that I've been inside for a good while, I don't always think about my release, and I don't always want to get out. I'm sometimes happier in here than I was out there. I'm under no pressure to be better in here and life's shrinking to a size that suits me more.
In this sense the book has a happy ending, and a hopeful ending. Prison is Patrick's salvation, not because it will reform him and better fit him for a better life, but because it fits him better for life, period. Perhaps it wasn't always that way - Hyland gestures at the very strange relationship Patrick had and continues to have with his parents, so the case for a childhood disaffection, even trauma is there. But instinct tells this reader otherwise. Patrick is the way he is because he is and always has been that way. His parent's inability to connect to him, and their apparent determination to eject him from their lives, is perhaps a symption of what has always been seen as dislocated, off-key behaviour in the context of society at large.
It struck me, as I was thinking about this, that This is How is like a kind-of flip-vision of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Not that Patrick commits a crime as heinous or as calculated or as vile as Kevin, but he gives us a glimpse of a Kevin's viewpoint: of what it is like to be a person and then a young man who fits so poorly into the mould that his family and society have made for him, who constantly disappoints and even frightens those closest to him. Who thinks, feels, understands, articulates everything differently, even criminally. It is worth reading the book for this alone - the unblinking fearless humanity of being inside such a strange and disconcerting mind.