Early on in Hungarian author Benedek Totth’s debut novel, the unnamed teenaged protagonist has a dream in which his dead father – now with the head of a shark – pleads, “Keep swimming, son, even if you die trying.” In the dream, the young man is working along with his buddies on a gruesome whaling ship, spearing huge marine animals, sawing off their fins, and tossing them back into the water. “[We] stood on deck, covered in blood, watching them blink with wide eyes as they sank to the bottom of the sea.”
As is often the case with literary dreams, the symbolism here is heavy-handed: the hero of this story – if indeed he can be called that – is the member of a championship youth swim team that is made up of vicious, shark-like young men whose violent impulses are as senseless as they are cruel and repugnant.
To say that Dead Heat is dark is as much an understatement as it is to say that the book’s violence, misogyny, and racism are hyperbolic. This is satire of the bleakest strain: there is scarcely a page that does not offend. And yet the result is utterly enthralling.
The protagonist and his perpetually stoned cohorts – the rich and spoiled Ducky, the hulking Buoy, the awkward and relatively good-hearted Zoli-boy – are emissaries of an abandoned generation. The promises of socialism and capitalism have proved equally bogus, leaving them mired in an absurd dichotomy. On the one hand, they have everything they want – drugs, sex, fast cars, video games. On the other, they have nothing: theirs is a future utterly devoid of any chance at intimacy or joy.
Driving the plot is a macabre sort of loyalty test. The four friends run down a bicycling wino while on a hash-fuelled joyride, then find themselves faced with the dilemma of how to respond to their predicament. For Ducky and Buoy, the terms are simple: any mention of what happened dies on the highway with the old man. Zoli-boy’s conscience isn’t so clear. As for our unnamed narrator, he’s torn between his friendship with Zoli-boy and his appetite for Ducky’s carefree lifestyle.
Vancouver-born Ildikó Noémi Nagy’s translation is exceptional – fast-paced and graphic, filled with the colloquialisms of addled adolescence. It captures the desolation, uncertainty, and casual brutality of a discarded generation. Totth is himself a translator and it comes as no surprise that among his translations are works by Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, Hunter S. Thompson, and William S. Burroughs. Their fingerprints are all over Dead Heat’s high-octane violence and rampant drug use. That said, Totth’s novel is much more than simple homage.
As savage, reckless, and abhorrent as the world Totth delivers is, what’s worse is how frighteningly real it all feels. Dead Heat is an undeniably uncomfortable novel, but so too is the truth it’s trying to get at.