Aptly described as ‘Lynchian’, Brutes by Dizz Tate is a slice of dark-hearted, small-town Americana, centring on a brood of intense and voyeuristic teenagers. At the heart of the novel’s unfolding events in Falls Landing, Florida, their all-seeing eyes note fellow residents every move, in particular their girl-crush, Sammy, the kooky daughter of a local preacher. When Sammy suddenly goes missing, the friends follow the search proceedings with binoculars from their bedroom windows, their gaze torn between ‘the blue streaks of sirens,’ and the silent, still lake beyond. The monsters of Falls Landing are about to surface in Tate’s deliciously febrile debut novel.
The opening scene brings us the immediate aftermath of Sammy’s disappearance and the thoughts of the watchers. A gang of thirteen-year-old girls (with one honorary boy member), their story is told in the collective ‘we’, with its unnerving suggestion of a pack. It’s only later that individual voices emerge and we realise that nothing is quite as it seems.
As the community searches for Sammy and the TV cameras arrive, the friends step out looking ‘lazy, gorgeous and innocent,’ alert for gossip and updates on the missing teenager. They love Sammy. They had chosen her, along with her friend Mia, whose glamorous mother recruits teenage wannabes for a Florida talent school. In fact, today’s audition is going ahead, despite the grim circumstances. After all, opportunity waits for no man (woman, or fame-chasing teen).
As Falls Landing becomes a sea of police tape, metal detectors, and reporters, Sammy’s story shares the local TV news bulletin with a piece on the nightly fires that are being randomly and deliberately lit around the area. The humid summer continues to squat over the town and things get very weird indeed.
At this point in the proceedings, canny readers may think the clues are there and it’s obvious where the tale’s headed. Except Tate takes it in another direction entirely, stirs in some eerie magical realism and ramps the plot up to a frenetic finale.
She brilliantly captures the intensely yearning nature of adolescence and infatuation with older teenagers. Sammy and her classmates, a grade ahead of her obsessive followers, were on the cusp of leaving for high school, an unbearable proposition for the gang.
‘We are behind, invisible to them as air now, little kids with large backpacks, our longing eyes as insignificant on their backs as shadows.’
They long to grow up and escape their dreary and divided hometown, where the affluent live in gated communities and they live in high-rise apartments with their mothers (fathers being thin on the ground). Daydreams of winning one of the talent school auditions and making it to Tinseltown are tinged with the knowledge that their mothers are waiting to be saved too, only in their case by ‘one of their carousel of men.’
A lake, a firestarter, and the price of a ticket out of Falls Landing follow the kids into adulthood as they evolve into the singular voices of the ‘brutes’, Hazel, Jody, Isabel, Britney, Leila, and Christian.
Surely on the Netflix hit list, Tate’s odd, crackling debut is a memorable read.
Brutes by Dizz Tate is published by Faber & Faber, 240 pages.