Reviewed in this essay:
Though no babe in the woods himself, when Anthony Ant Young, the redheaded protagonist in Ashley Little’s brief debut novel Prick: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist initially enters a Victoria tattoo parlour seeking an apprenticeship, his questionable virtue is unblemished in comparison to the cast of repellent characters he eventually encounters. Eager to learn the trade, Young is taken under wing by parlour owner Hank the Tank, a misogynistic and depraved full-patch member of a notorious biker gang.
So begins Young’s descent into a heart of darkness.
Upon resurfacing at book’s end, Young is a disturbingly corrupted version of his former self. Here’s a young man who doesn’t sell his soul to the devil; rather, he gifts it to Satan. Is this an occupational hazard of the (skin) trade, or a complete and utter collapse of his moral compass? The author steps aside and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. No longer the domain of sailors and longshoremen, tattoos have literally become an emblem of our times. Today, tattoos serve as a personal stamp, showing others who we are, or who we are not. Considering this, it’s unusual more fiction writers haven’t explored the industry. A few years ago, John Irving did, travelling the road of the tattoo artist in Until I Found You. Whereas Irving’s novel observed the industry through the lens of his well-crafted, New England sensibilities, Little’s approach is raw, ruthless and unremorseful. If Irving’s writing style in his tattoo-themed novel can be equated with an autumnal stroll down a colourful country lane, then Prick is a screeching hell ride down damnation alley.
Funny things happen on the road to perdition. Little skilfully peppers the narrative with unexpected morsels. While in full-tilt moral decline, Ant, as he is known, can never shake his childlike predisposition to blush in uncomfortable situations, oftentimes in the company of females. This is the same man who, on account of his own drug-induced negligence, is okay with allowing a pedestrian to die alone on a darkened Victoria street. Oftentimes callous to the core, Ant still maintains a special bond with his granny, considers a parasitic drug supplier a buddy, and at one point even shares a decidedly non-homoerotic man-hug with a burly biker.
No doubt about it, this novel is a confessional journey headlong into a deep, black pit, terrain most of us will thankfully never explore. Therein lies one of the novel’s weaknesses. The story pauses one time too often in explanation. This anthropological tone seldom rears its head, but when it does, Little’s writing reads sophomorically. The publisher’s decision to add a glossary only reinforces this weakness.
Like a car wreck to the morbidly inquisitive, or a brilliant dragon tattoo on alabaster flesh, Prick is a beautifully disturbing tale revealing the morally mangled soul of a young man.