Reviewed by Rod McLary
This engaging novel, The Rider on the Bridge, opens with the narrator re-telling a story told to him of a young boy riding his bike – for a fee – blindfolded across a bridge. The narrator informs the reader that ‘the absence of truth does not diminish the story’ ; the re-telling of that story ‘demands introspection’ from the narrator which leads him to tell his own story of a time, when he was fifteen, twenty-five years before.
It is a story of those close intense friendships which only the young seem to have; but it is also a story of marginalised and disadvantaged youth living just beyond the awareness of society. The first sentence of chapter two establishes the milieu perfectly: When I lived here, it was in a dirty, weatherboard den. It was a house infected with the perpetual smell of sun-baked beer cans and cigarette smoke . After running away from the den, the narrator meets by chance seventeen-year-old Julia who names him Kitten – not ‘derogatory or a slur’ but as an indicator of affection – and offers him a place to stay. Thus Kitten goes with Julia to the Manor and meets Sophie, Joffa and Fergus, and Brad. He soon learns that Brad sold ‘a lot of weed, pills, powders and such’  and Joffa acted as his security.
There is a solidarity between this small band of youths – a solidarity which Kitten welcomes and into which he is soon absorbed. He finds there a degree of acceptance and safety markedly absent from his earlier life. Kitten seldom refers to it except by allusion to ‘the woman he lived with’ suggesting perhaps an absence of any emotional connection between them. The occasional contact with parents – whether Jake’s or Brad’s – never ends well and, while nothing is made explicit, the reader can readily infer backstories marred by emotional or physical abuse and fracturing of family relationships.
The author does not shy away from setting out the consequences of the band’s living on the fringes of society: the violence as sudden as it is vicious, the sexual exploitation of the young women, and the continual drug abuse. But, as have many people, the band has a dream of a better life – travelling to Byron [Bay] and, as Kitten says: ‘it was their place beyond the horizon, complex and powerful’ .
The author also captures beautifully the duality of young people living in harsh and unforgiving circumstances – on one hand there exists the violence, sexual abuse, drug use; and, on the other, the desire for childish fun which still lies within them. On a visit to Luna Park, Kitten expresses the band’s simple pleasure – ‘We squashed into a photo booth on Brad’s excited suggestion. He was different now; there was a childish adventurousness that had overcome him’ . But this is short-lived and reality intrudes again. A sense of the youths being outside time pervades the novel – days are demarcated from each other only by such confronting events as the hostile intrusion of a landlord, the sexual assault of Julia, or an attack by a rival gang.
It is the attack by the gang which brings to an end their shared life at the Manor. The band is fractured by tragedy and Kitten moves on. There is a palpable sadness resonating through the final chapters although there is some redemption as Kitten reflects on his experiences at the Manor from the vantage point of maturity. I didn’t really know where they came from or why they became who they were, but I miss them . As well though, Kitten’s reflection connects with the book’s title – capturing a moment in time between the past and the future when all that mattered was the present.
Scott Pearce has crafted a book full of lyricism and realism which will frequently take your breath away – either by the beauty of the language or the harshness of Kitten’s milieu. There is an authenticity in the lived experiences of Kitten and his cohorts; and for anyone who has worked closely with disadvantaged youth, there is much to be recognised in and much to be learned from the story of Kitten. It is a story to be savoured and reflected on – and to reassure ourselves that, even in the harshest of times, there are moments of sheer pleasure.
The Rider on the Bridge is the second novel by Scott Pearce – his first was Faded Yellow by the Winter. Scott has a PhD from Deakin University and has been teaching English and Literature at Alia College since 2003.
The Rider on the Bridge
by Scott Pearce
ISBN 978 098722 655 6