Dissident Reviews #3: Dragon Day by Matthew Pegas
Charles Jason and Tobias “Toby” Sharpe are students at an elite North-east American university whose lives intersect through their interactions with Thomas Wallingford, a messianic professor and fraternal ‘figurehead’.
A horrible crime is visited upon Toby for which we quickly learn Wallingford is responsible, revealing the truth about a figure who presents himself as a wholesome family man.
Everything about Wallingford is bogus. His philosophy. His politics. His personality. His sexuality. His turpitude would stretch credulity, except for the energy he deploys to mask it, which renders him all too human.
Toby is under no illusions about Wallingford’s true nature. But Charles, an older and more ambitious student, is in the grip of Wallingford’s spell. Interestingly, however, these positions are soon reversed. Charles, once the doting protégé and errand boy, becomes suspicious and resentful of Wallingford, while Toby—Wallingford’s victim—becomes ever more drawn to him.
By the time Toby is victimised the second time, however, the writing is on the wall for both young men. Charles—having unmasked and confronted his former mentor—is kicked out of his PhD program. Toby spirals into a state of hopelessness and despair, setting the stage for the novel’s Dragon Day climax.
There is much to commend this book. First, the prose is lean. No words are wasted. The book can be read in one sitting.
Second, it has the ring of authenticity. Reading it, I felt sure the author studied in an institution resembling the fictional Lockden, and encountered the characters who feature—albeit in an exaggerated from—in the book there.
Third, the book gives due respect to the complex emotions being abused doubtlessly elicits. Pegas takes no shortcuts, and does not attempt to draw a simplistic abuser/abused dichotomy.
If I had to offer one critique of what I found to be a fine read, it would be concerning the narration. This is done by Charles, who bases his recounting of the story on “the brief but revelatory time” he spent with Toby. Perhaps Pegas felt the story had to be—at least in part—told in the first person.
I think this threw up unnecessary complications. The story switches from first to third person narration every couple of pages. We are also left to wonder how Charles knows certain things (e.g. that Toby is unhappy with the size of his penis as we learn in the first paragraph).
An omniscient third person narrator, switching the focus between the two characters, might have worked better, and obviated the need for what reads like a mea culpa in the book's introduction.
This is an issue of form. Globally, Dragon Day delivers an intriguing story and tackles large themes without descending into polemic or black and white absolutism. An excellent debut.
About Dissident Reviews:
In this series, I will review—in a spirit of objectivity and constructive criticism—“dissident” works, by which I mean works establishment publishing houses would overlook for ideological reasons. My motivations for doing so are to:
discover works from outside the mainstream, which I consider politicised and uninteresting;
network with like-minded writers;
promote work I consider good and offer what I hope will be useful critiques for that I think could be better; and
promote my own work.
I am an Australian writer living in France. I am in the process of publishing a three-novel series—the first of which is available here—and have had non-fiction published in Quadrant and Quillette magazines and The Australian newspaper.
Authors are welcome to use quotes from these reviews (with attribution). If you would like me to review your book please get in touch via my Twitter page.