Book Review : Iain Ryan - The Student (2017)
For all my life, pop culture has swarmed my precious leisure time with drug dealing character. Sure, they're convenient boogeyman, enslaving the innocent with their product and their greed. Sometimes they're even romantic figures, who beat the game and live on their own terms. But, you know: they're slinging dope, get in trouble with the authorities or other dope slingers and either pay the price of their transgression and/or redeem themselves. It's, more or less, always the same thing. Iain Ryan's The Student had all the makings of a prototypical drug dealer novel meant to satisfy out need for outlaw romance, but it isn't.
I should've known that only someone like Ryan could take such a hackneyed and predictable premise, turn it on its head and deconstruct the everloving shit out of it. The Student is as good as anything he's ever done and it's noir, yet it's far from anything he's ever done before or from any noir you've ever read. That novel is a trip.
So, The Student is the story of Nate, a business student dealing weed on the side to make easy money and hang out with the cool kids. His life starts slowly getting out of control when a girl named Maya Kibby turns up dead. His friend and supplier Jesse disappears soon after and leaves him with a debt to local bikers he didn't know he had. Heard that one before, haven't you? Well, this is only the premise because this novel takes a sharp turn in the existential left field and becomes the waking nightmare of a young man fighting a battle he can't win while everyone around him refuse to even acknowledge what's going on.
What makes The Student original and much more interesting to read than you usual drug-deal-gone-wrong novel is that it merely uses the drug trade as a setting for Nate's situation. The story would've been more or less the same if Nate was chased by a cuckolded husband or some kind of murderous asshole instead of bikers. The Student is the story of Nate's life coming undone and his friends turning their back on him when he gets in enough trouble. I thought THAT was really cool and powerful.
At one point in the novel, Iain Ryan start going backwards and examining the life events and the decisions his character took that put him into this situation. Notably what happened to his brother Ray, which could've felt tacked on if Nate didn't behave like someone with the weight of the world on his shoulder. It was a great, telling detail. That's how you make a drug dealer interesting, you know? By showing us who he really is. Scarface ain't all that different, structurally speaking, in that regard.
One aspect of The Student I liked a little less was the focus on local Australian geography. Nate visits several towns trying to locate his friends Jesse and Sock and I don't doubt they're all desolate shitholes next to one another, but as a non-Australian reader, they all sounded like the exact same to me. I understand that Iain Ryan isn't exactly Dan Brown and that he write for a primarily Australian audience, but it made the reading more uncomfortable than it should've been and it's a problem his excellent Tunnel Island novels don't suffer from, mostly because they're set in one place.
Iain Ryan is quietly becoming a contender for the most-interesting-man-in-the-game title belt that Jordan Harper and Joe Clifford are competing for with every new release. He is a terrific talent with a lean and unique voice and The Student is a dramatic and mostly successful expansion of his narrative range. I wouldn't say it's as delightful as the Tunnel Island novels are, but it's close and if he can hit that hard by moving away from his comfort zone, sky's the limit, really. Let's turn Iain Ryan into a superstar. If anyone's deserving of your love and hard-earned money, he is.