In the Nineties, it wasn’t uncommon for a shocking film like Larry Clark’s 1995 Kids to be marketed as “The Movie Every Parent in America Should See”—the implication being, it’s occasionally worthwhile or even necessary for parents to subject themselves to outré youth movies so as to keep abreast of what their children may or may be doing outside of adult supervision. It’s difficult to make the same case, to parents or anyone, for Benedek Totth’s first novel, Dead Heat (251 pages; Biblioasis; translated by Ildikó Noémi Nagy). The book, which concerns a quartet of teenage boys in an unnamed Hungarian town, is aggressively unpleasant from its opening pages; nevertheless it does “bear witness” to the limits of youthful depravity in this era of internet pornography, violent first-person shooters, and casual sex. In that regard, the novel is an unqualified success.
Dead Heat unfolds from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, part of a clique of boys whose achievements on their high school swim team are matched only by their reckless hedonism. The novel opens on a typical night for the lads: drug-addled and careening behind the wheel of an automobile (without a driver’s permit). The group includes Ducky, who seems their de facto leader (primarily because of his willingness to indulgence in violence to get his way); Buoy, who follows in his disgraced older brother’s example by taking performance-enhancing drugs; and Zoli-Boy, the most timid and therefore abused, physically and otherwise, of their lot. Our narrator is a composite of his three friends, neither a passive observer to their cruelty nor the most unhinged of his cohort, which perhaps makes him best suited to tell this story; in this way, he’s not unlike Clay, the narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero, which serves as an obvious touchstone.
Dead Heat is propulsive; the book rushes headlong through its first hundred or so pages, with the characters rarely stopping to contemplate the consequences of their actions, even when they run over a homeless man crossing the road at night. At first, Ducky tries to convince himself it was only a wild boar that collided with the hood of his father’s expensive car. But it becomes clear the boys have committed vehicular manslaughter and must go about hiding the body. Even then, the characters are less troubled by their crime than they are about being caught, though the specter of this possibility never once impedes the boys’ raucous partying, including the violent hazing of a group of swim team freshmen.
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Much of Dead Heat put a knot in my stomach. The vulgar dialogue, the constant pop culture references, the debauchery and blasé violence—it was difficult to discern what insight the book could offer. Yet one thinks of Ethan Couch, the teen who killed four people while driving under the influence only for his legal team to successfully argue an “Affluenza” defense; or another student athlete, Brock Turner, who was given a lenient sentence for committing rape. Despite the novel’s Eastern European setting, it’s not difficult to see a reflection of those cases in the young men of Dead Heat. Is it enjoyable to spend time in the company of Ducky and his gang? Far from it. But it is a sobering reminder of the moral vacuum many young men grow up in. These characters are teenagers, without a fully developed sense of empathy, but there’s reason to suspect they might never form one.
Totth has previously translated the works of authors like Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy into Hungarian, and one sees in Dead Heat a reflection of those writers at their most resolutely bleak. Eventually, Totth does offer the reader something of a reprieve: there’s a palpable sense of relief when the narrator momentarily separates from his friends after a night of club-going and is left to wander the streets alone. His wandering triggers reminiscences of the elementary school principal who used to beat him and his friends, giving some indication of where the boys’ cycle of violence may have began:
Maybe time blew the memory of that beating out of proportion, but nobody’s beat me up that hard since. That’s when Zoli-boy and I became pals. I never knew why we got our asses kicked, but I do remember standing with my back turned when that bastard whacked me upside the head the first time and started howling that we destroyed the toilet-paper dispenser…Everybody knew that was the principal’s hobby. He made his rounds during recess and served up a couple of knuckle sandwiches. He liked fighting. I guess that’s a thing. And it’s safer fighting with weaklings ‘cause they don’t dare hit back. Whatever.
There is also a sense of rare clarity from the narrator in the scenes in which he is at swim practice and competitions. These sequences of intense physical focus and sensory detail stand out from the rest of the novel, underscoring that only in the water can the narrator achieve some semblance of self-awareness or an inner life:
I’m not concerned with the others anymore. Maybe they’re hoping my strength will run out, that I’ll cramp up and won’t be able to maintain this speed, but I up the tempo at half the distance. There’s no fatigue, and I don’t care that my muscles are slowly getting rigid and my lungs are burning, and pull myself forward with it. I let my body carry me. I’m a shark.
It’s telling that the book’s climax, in which the narrator must ultimately decide between preserving his life or remaining with his friends, sees him escaping Ducky’s wrath by stripping down and plunging into the dirty water of a municipal clarifier.
Dead Heat is a book one hesitates to recommend—it’s far from a pleasurable read, but not all stories must be pleasurable. Some, like Totth’s, are decidedly grim, a record from the abyss where there is no hope, no edification. In their place: a depiction that doesn’t wave away its protagonists’ actions nor indulge them with pity and shows what can happen to a culture that offers its young no moral guidance.