Hachette, $27.99 pb, 265 pp, 9780733639012
Bani Adam wants to be a ‘chivalrous poet’ or a great writer. These aspirations make the Lebanese-Australian teenager feel like an outsider at the testosterone-fuelled, anti-intellectual high school that he attends. Until he finishes school, Bani bides his time with a group of mostly Muslim and Lebanese young men. ‘The Lebs’, as they refer to themselves, while away the hours discussing religion and politics, fantasising about or insulting teachers, and forging something like a friendship with one another.
The Lebs is the latest novel for Sydney writer and community arts worker Michael Mohammed Ahmad. The author sketches his characters with precision and with a refreshing lack of moralising about their lives. Some of the young men spout misogynist and anti-Semitic opinions. These sentiments are disturbing, but there is no suggestion that they are being endorsed.
The novel shifts from witty to bleak and confronting, and then back, sometimes in the space of a few paragraphs. Ahmad traverses a number of issues – sex, gender, race, and religion – without being didactic. The book is divided into sections with titles such as ‘Drug Dealers and Drive Bys’. These titles could have been lifted from tabloid reports about the supposed horrors of multicultural suburbia. They contrast nicely with the unsensational, though always compelling, events in Bani’s life.
The Lebs’ sense of historicity is fuzzy. At one point, for example, Bani observes his classmates’ reactions to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which, we are told, have just occurred. This would suggest that the novel is set in 2001, but there are also references to Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (2006) and to a 2009 incident featuring radio personality Kyle Sandilands. This aside, The Lebs provides a confronting and admirably frank examination of one young man’s coming of age in contemporary Australia.