Hardcover (also available in paperback and as an e-book), 978-1-0878-5685-8, 316 pgs., $25.99
October 1, 2020
In May of 1986, William Flynn and his three closest friends—Randy Moss, Brian Johnson, and Miguel Gonzalez—are finishing up seventh grade in Converse, Texas, a suburb northeast of San Antonio. One day, as the four friends are riding their bikes in a clearing behind the school, the local high-school gang, led by a bruiser called “Bloody Billy” (with “fists like boulders and veins in his neck the size of water hoses”), arrives for their usual sport of terrorizing the younger boys. On this day, a security guard from the school shows up, and the older boys take off, dropping a backpack during the getaway.
William scoops up the backpack as he and his friends scramble for a place to hide. Panting and terrified, the friends discover a bag of weed and cash in the pack. When the gang, “[t]heir random appearances [giving] them a mythological quality like sightings of sasquatch or Chupacabra,” comes for the boys, the friends hatch a plan to hide out in an abandoned house on Canyon Lake to ride out the storm.
The Benevolent Lords of Sometimes Island is the new novel from Austin’s Scott Semegran, whose novel To Squeeze a Prairie Dog won a silver medal in the 2019 Readers’ Favorite International Book Awards and is the 2019 Texas Author Project winner for adult fiction. The Benevolent Lords of Sometimes Island is a worthy follow-up, an ambitious, marked progression in his maturation as an author of literary fiction.
Semegran’s cast is diverse and sharply drawn. They are Anglo, African American, and Latino; economically struggling and well off; victims of abusive relationships and beneficiaries of solid marriages; Catholic, protestant, and none-of-the-above. William aspires to art and writing; Randy polishes his comedy routine; Brian is working on his Eagle Scout certification; Miguel is an earnest boy with a passion for history.
The story of the Benevolent Lords is related through William’s first-person narration, with occasional asides speaking directly to the reader, looking back from an adult perspective. The action is fast and evenly paced.
Semegran’s nostalgia, a longing for the days when kids weren’t monitored and surveilled twenty-four-seven and friendship felt primal, is a constant presence. Happily, he doesn’t let the emotion become maudlin. For example, he conjures the middle-school cafeteria with the “smell of bleach and reheated meat products, along with the stench of teenage hormones and body odor.”
The book will remind readers of Lord of the Flies and the movie Stand By Me (adapted from The Body, a Stephen King novella). As Semegran explains in an author’s note, Benevolent Lords was written in response to the aforementioned, in an effort to further “the literary conversation.” What if the boys were friends? How might those relationships change the outcome? Is breakdown and anarchy a foregone conclusion? Semegran thinks not, producing an elegant conclusion to his Benevolent Lords. In a tongue-in-cheek reference to Lord of the Flies, Randy says he didn’t finish the book—“too depressing.” The relationship among these friends is engaging, their interactions feeling authentically insecure and, simultaneously, wholly committed.
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