When Mr Dog Bites

This exuberant novel owes a debt to Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,  whose protagonist is an autistic adolescent who, like Conaghan's hero, Dylan, is finding his way in a dysfunctional adult society characterised by violence, sexual impropriety and duplicity. Dylan, though, has Tourette's, not autism, giving the work its comic foundation and allowing the author to lob a wonderfully mischievous grenade into the debate surrounding appropriate language in teenage fiction.

Conaghan, however, is too sophisticated a writer to overly depend on the humour of periodic barrages of expletives; instead, he dexterously and wittily manipulates language and exploits wordplay both in Dylan's internal musings and in the banter with his 'best buddy,' Amir, the very use of the phrase suggesting their relative innocence, naiveté and intimacy.

Most of the action takes place in the special school they both attend. The normal preoccupation with factions and growing sexual awareness prevails, except that the protagonist thinks he is dying, thereby giving his dreams and aspirations an added urgency. Top of his 'cool things to do before I cack it' is to bed the feisty and intelligent Michelle Molloy. The consummation of this desire, the acceptance of his mother's independence and the fitting of a device to control Mr Dog, his Tourette's, distances him from his previous immaturity. His goodbye letter to his once adored dad which ends the novel is bereft of Dylan's linguistic gyrations and playfulness, being replaced by more regularised, less animated prose, suggesting that maturity and normality exact a price.