John Butler, the Irish scriptwriter and filmmaker best known for his TV sketch show Your Bad Self, now turns his attention to fiction. His debut novel, The Tenderloin, tells the coming-of-age story of Evan, a young Dubliner who heads off for adventure in San Francisco with his school friend Milo.
It's 1995, and the dot.com gold rush is well under way. Evan crosses paths with an intriguing suave older man called Sam Couples. Sam is an entrepreneur behind the internet start-up Forwardslash, which is about to be floated as an IPO.
Evan and Milo, a much more self-assured and worldly version of Evan, loaf around San Francisco unsuccessfully looking for work, but finding employment in a city full of Ivy League graduates and tech-savvy temp workers is proving more difficult than expected.
The friendship between Evan and Milo feels authentic, fluctuating constantly between light and warm to more serious moments, especially with regard to a scene involving Milo's father, which reveals a tender insight into just how young and vulnerable these characters actually are.
This insight into the no-man's land of those years between official adulthood and adolescence is pitch-perfect.
Butler manages to recreate the particular era incredibly well. It's enjoyable and strangely poignant to read about a time that seems at once so distant (the long shadow of 9/11 has yet to be cast) and yet so recent -- it is after all only 16 years ago.
Butler defines the moment well, with careful attention to detail, not just regarding the burgeoning internet, but with regard to the news events that marked the time, such as the OJ Simpson trial.
There is also some wry comment on what we now know to be untrue, a riff on how Apple Macintosh is a dying brand, which raises a chuckle in a world dominated by iPhones and iPads.
Butler conjures a sensual San Francisco, giving it a real sense of character through his description of the people, the streets, the Golden Gate Bridge, the ocean, the fog and its laid-back lifestyle.
No coming-of-age story would be complete without sex and at the core of this book is Evan's sexual awakening. As he travels to San Francisco, probably one of the most sexually liberated places on the planet, he is determined to shed the burden of his virginity. But, like many young men and women, he is thwarted by a sort of emotional 'locked-in' syndrome where he is incapable (or perhaps unwilling) to manifest his internal desires physically, until events reach a crisis point.
But as he fumbles his way through some deflating, and eventually enlightening, sexual encounters, he finally gains self-awareness.
By the end of this book it felt a little like the story had slipped its harness one or two times, but Butler managed to rein it back in to complete a very enjoyable and unexpectedly funny debut novel.