Review on Benedek Totth's Dead Heat
Dead Heat is a real mix of genres. It’s a powerful, very contemporary work, sharp as a key scraping along the freshly polished paintwork of someone else’s car. - A review on Benedek Totth's first novel, Dead Heat (Holtverseny).
Good God, what is this? You think on reading the first few sentences, but after that all I find myself thinking is, ‘please don’t blow it, please don’t…’.
People who follow this kind of thing know Benedek Totth as a literary translator and editor; Dead Heat [Holtverseny] is his first novel. His central characters are a bunch of teenagers drifting in a social vacuum, a sort of nothingness, getting a grip only on each other, and only occasionally, for an hour or two. To keep themselves drifting along, they occasionally have to kick off against each other.
Dead Heat is a real mix of genres. It’s a powerful, very contemporary work, sharp as a key scraping along the freshly polished paintwork of someone else’s car. And, for the record, he didn’t blow it.
You can read this novel as Young Adult fiction, but you can also read it as a bildungsroman, or a Central European teenage thriller… and it has a hint of the classic road trip, or maybe that’s just me. Totth has been translating outstanding authors into Hungarian for years, among them such classics as Aldous Huxley, living legends like Cormac McCarthy, cult comic writers (Neil Gaiman) and the ever-popular Suzanne Collins. So he’s had some good masters to learn from… but then again, maybe he was just born talented. From the very first sentences, he pulls his reader into the thick of the story and leaves them panting for breath, though nothing much happens that wouldn’t happen in any corner of the country of an evening when a group of teens gets together in someone’s dad’s borrowed (or filched) car.
The teenage characters get high, have sex, and talk appalling nonsense. And that’s probably how things would keep on going if the car didn’t drift off the road on a sharp corner. But literary conventions can also prove fickle in Dead Heat. Cause can easily lose its effect, while repercussions visit our heroes only on the rarest of occasions. The rich and spoiled Kacsa, Bója the water-polo player, Niki – who goes with everyone – and Zoli, the loser, all carry on day after day exactly where they left off the night before. And our narrator does the same – though all we know about him for sure is that he’s a competitive swimmer, he’s living with his single mother, and his name’s not Gergő.
The paths of this group of teens are littered with cats blown to bits, fat spliffs, guns in the wrong hands and dildos dipped in chili sauce; it’s only a matter of time before a couple of local tough guys turn up, the police hot on their heels. The most striking thing about all this, though, is that the central characters aren’t really after anything, other than enjoying themselves for an hour or two. But a sense of nothingness has never been so entertaining, and the key to that is not so much the story itself, but the writing. Simply put, Totth has a feeling for how his characters speak. The teenagers in Dead Heat are not pale imitations – based on how they talk, we could meet them on any street corner. There’s nothing self-serving in the way they swear, their obscene comments, and thankfully there’s no awkward beating round the bush. They live in the here and now. These are kids who’ve grown up on Star Wars; when they think of chemistry, they think of Breaking Bad, when they see the deserted city, they think of the Walking Dead. They have very little emotional connection to their parents. The narrator’s mother wanders around their flat like a weird zombie, while for Kacsa, it’s his parents’ money that makes his conflictual everyday life more bearable. Niki is also from a well-to-do background, though her emotional maturity and development sometimes defy classification.
The only father figure worthy of the name, who apparently pays any attention at all to the kids, is Bandibá, the sadistic swimming coach. He, however, can only impose order by threatening to tear off the kids’ testicles with his bare hands.
And it’s precisely their faith in their own invulnerability that puts a twist in the otherwise predictable flow of events; from there on in, things are no longer funny at all, and the game is a game of life and death. The theme is so clichéd that it might stick out of any decent YA novel, but Totth manages to make what his characters could only imagine in their worst nightmares painfully current, real, and believable thanks precisely to their sense of the lack of repercussions and the novel’s linguistic twists and turns.
We’ve known all along that Totth is a good translator, but we had no idea that he wrote so well. Many people will label Dead Heat a YA novel, which is fine, as long as its readership is not entirely composed of teenagers. For though the central characters may be teens, the twisted chain of events is not only about them and trying to say something about them. For Totth has allowed a small ray of sunshine in that otherwise bottomless darkness that is teenagerhood, in which we were all submerged at one time. A period that’s lined with fear, doubt, and a bare nothingness all around.
Totth Benedek: Holtverseny
Magvető Könyvkiadó, 2014, 248 oldal, 2990 HUF
Translated from a review on Könyvesblog, find the original piece here.
Translated by: Mark Baczoni