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by Melvin Burgess
Listening Library, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 28th 2005

Doing It

The British writer Melvin Burgess has written several books for young adults, including Smack, a novel about teenage heroin addicts.  Doing It is more light-hearted but equally provocative, telling the stories of the sex lives of three best friends, Dino, Jon and Ben.  Dino is one of the best looking boys in school, and he has a voice like a "lecherous teddy bear."  His girlfriend is Jackie, one of the best looking girls in school, so she and Dino are a natural pairing.  But even though she is not a virgin, she refuses to have sex with him.  Dino has a party when his parents go away and after Jackie leaves, he ends up having sex with another girl, and decides that he can have his cake and eat it by dating both of them.  Of course, Dino's plan does not work out as he hoped, and his problems are compounded by severe problems between his parents.  When he starts to lose everything he had, he finds it hard to cope and his friends are able to console him.

While Dino's tale has fairly standard teen angst, Ben's is far more troubling.  He has started a relationship with his drama teacher, Ali Young, who is in her twenties.  Initially it is a schoolboy's dream come true, having outrageous sex all over her apartment and in the school.  Both of them know that what they are doing is dangerous, and could end in her ruining her career and his being expelled from school.  At first, he is thrilled and proud that he has done this, but after a while, he starts to feel trapped in the relationship.  He is profoundly uncomfortable when Ali says she loves him, but he does not feel powerful enough to tell her the truth.  If it were a case of a female student being seduced by a male teacher, then it would be a clear case of sexual abuse, but this situation is more confusing.  By the end, though, Ben is very clear that Ali has abused her power as a teacher and her deep psychological problems.

Jon has a far more tentative romance with Debs.  He likes her a lot, and when he hooks up with her, his body reacts in a positive way.  But the problem is that she is fat, and he is not sure that he wants to have a fat girl for a girlfriend.  His struggle is in working out whether he can overcome his own prejudice.  Once he does, he discovers another problem: when they get ready to have sex, he can't have an erection.  The two of them manage to talk and sort through their problems.  With all his characters, Burgess shows how they think, in a sort of stream of consciousness, and he does this especially for Jon and his internal dialogue about how to cope with his feelings. 

Doing It is fairly explicit, describing plenty of sexual activities, but if focuses on the feelings of its narrators.  Different chapters are told from different perspectives, with Dino, Ben or Jon doing the talking, or occasionally from some of the girl's point of view, or from a third person neutral stance.  Most of the time, the tone is light and humorous.  Sometimes the jokiness is laid on a bit heavily; for example, Jon keeps on talking about the reactions of his "Mr. Knobby."  American readers may be a bit surprised by British slang, using words like "arse," "shag," "wank," "knob," and "minge," or even phrases such as "doing sex" and exclamations such as "what are you like?!"  It is probably appropriate more for older teens and adults rather than younger teens. 

The book starts out full of sexual longing and enthusiasm, and it looks like it might be quirky erotic novel for teens.  Soon, however, it becomes clear that the book is distinctive because of its psychological sophistication, getting the reader into the heads of its narrators, showing the insecurities and puzzles that come with male adolescence, at least in middle class Britain. 

The unabridged audiobook is read by British James Gilbey, and he gives a very strong performance.  He uses a slightly regional accent, maybe London-based, and that adds to the conviction that these stories are being told by real people.  He reads with plenty of energy, and he makes the listening experience very entertaining, while at the same time carrying off the more serious moments when the characters face their crises.  Highly recommended. 



© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.