Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Smack is narrated by ten different voices, but Gemma's and Tar's voices dominate, fitting because they are the central characters of the novel. Burgess's strategy of using multiple first-person narrators demands that readers pay close attention to what the characters say about themselves, and each other, and demands that readers be sensitive to the irony of these statements.

Tar (his real name is David, though Gemma calls him Tar because he smokes cigarettes) runs away from his home because of his alcoholic parents. His father, a schoolteacher, beats him. His mother manipulates him into hiding her own alcoholism by doing the household chores and protecting her against Tar's father who recognizes his wife's alcoholism and manipulative behavior but does not understand how to deal with the problems other than by beating Tar to try to prevent him from helping his mother.

Tar's situation is very difficult, and he has no help to deal with it other than Gemma's emotional support. His decision to run away is accepted as legitimate by Richard and Vonny, the Bristol anarchists who support him, both physically and emotionally when he moves in with them at the new squat. They become Tar's surrogate family.

Tar is very sensitive and passive. He has none of the defenses that would protect him from difficult life experiences. One of the reasons Skolly, the tobacconist, wants to help him is because "he has no front" (33). He is not fragile as much as willing to be led, unable to make decisions on his own. His love for Gemma is at once a desire to replace the love he does not experience in his own home, as well as a dependence on someone who can make decisions for him. Hence when Gemma leaves him to live with Lily and Rob, heroin addicts, Tar is devastated. It does not take him too long to rejoin Gemma at Lily and Rob's squat and to try the heroin that the three offer him.

Becoming a heroin addict only magnifies Tar's weaknesses. Any initiative he may have had is directed into petty thievery, shoplifting, and drug dealing. Burgess does not focus on Tar's criminal activities to a great degree, and readers are left with the impression that it is Gemma's and Lily's prostitution which is really the stable income that allows the foursome to buy heroin. Eventually, Tar begins to steal from Gemma and to hide rather than share any heroin he has. He is the first to admit defeat when they try to quit cold turkey and quick to lie about the amount of heroin he is using.

Tar's love for Gemma does motivate him to rise above the level of a junkie on occasion. When the house is raided by police, he protects Gemma by taking the blame. To avoid prison, Tar agrees to a stint in a drug treatment center. However, he is not strong enough to stay clean. At the end of the novel, after Gemma and Tar's relationship has fallen apart and he is no longer living with her and their daughter Oona, Tar gets drunk and beats Gemma. He is clearly following in his father's footsteps, unable to deal with the complications of his life other than with violence.

On the whole, Tar never outgrows his weaknesses. While his vulnerability was attractive when he was younger and made people want to protect him, four years later, at the end of the novel, he seems only slightly more aware of his weaknesses and not any more able to deal with them. Despite making progress toward entering an art school and trying to start his life over again in Hereford with a new girlfriend, readers are hardly confident that Tar will be able to overcome his addictions and make a stable life for himself. He is still lying to the doctor in order to gain a prescription for methadone. He has not told his new girlfriend Carol that he sometimes takes "a handful of methadone—you know, as a drug." He still has a vague, unrealistic hope that Gemma will take him back. However, readers know that Tar is not seeing the situation clearly.


(The entire section is 1606 words.)