Boy Friends by Michael Pedersen review – intimate account of male bonding

Love and grief coexist in Pedersen’s paean to his closest pals – and one musician buddy in particular

In 2018, Michael Pedersen sat down and started writing a letter to his best friend. Scott Hutchison had taken his own life a few weeks before, in May, and as Pedersen addressed his friendship with the musician, artist and lead singer of indie rock band Frightened Rabbit, he found himself returning to the male alliances that have shaped his life. The result, Boy Friends, sees Pedersen – a co-founder of avant-garde Edinburgh literary collective Neu! Reekie! – illuminate these companions with a poet’s eye, a comedian’s timing – and a lover’s care.

For all his skill, Boy Friends is self-consciously unpolished – appropriately so maybe. Real love is tricky, unplottable, stained with the dirt and struggle of everyday life. To drive this point home, the author murders a hamster in chapter one. Muffin, crushed to a pulp by the young Pedersen, hovers over the bloody-handed sprog for years to come (“Shame cast asunder the curtains of my weakling heart,” he wails, not entirely joking). Seeing him standing in the dark for hours to honour one of Muffin’s rodent successors, his mother makes a comment that could stand as Boy Friends’ epitaph. There’s nothing wrong with you, she reassures him. You just feel things a lot.

She’s right: Pedersen’s passage from gawky youth to precocious young adult is studded with full-hearted liaisons. First comes David (“like my first love – feeling incomplete without his presence, dumped upon his leaving”), then Rowley, a footloose rule-breaker with a huge capacity for delight. Finally, there’s Jake – charmer, illuminator, friend-confessor – who introduces Pedersen to emotional fluency. And to heroin.

All his recollections are love stories, but not cohesive ones: they start inexplicably, end unexpectedly, have ellipses where full stops should be. David grows distant, as childhood friends so often do; Pedersen mourns Rowley’s self-destruction and quietly quits Jake when he kicks his smack habit.

But his bond with Hutchison nags at him. “The loss of you,” he writes, “has knocked the big cosmic balance off-kilter.” Boy Friends grapples with the pain of this bereavement and the history of their friendship, which begins when Pedersen books Hutchison to perform at an event he is organising. Art – poetry for ex-solicitor Pedersen; music and drawing for Hutchison – brings the two together and a shared mythology develops; jokes, habits, haunts; schemes highbrow and low-minded, from tours and gigs to endless dinners. They are bound tight. What follows is a celebration and a lament - for a friendship that looked set to last for ever and didn’t.

Hutchison’s growing success coexists with mental health struggles, though the pair enjoy one last, triumphal journey around the countryside. “This is,” Pedersen writes, “the sweater love is knitted from, a patchwork quilt to follow – uncharted, unplanned days wiggling across the great Scottish wilderness.”

And then, all at once, it’s over. Hutchison dies and Pedersen’s poetic gifts turn inwards. “Living while you don’t,” he writes, “is its own arcane act of endurance.” He travels restlessly, relentlessly. He can’t stand to be alone. He sees the dead man’s face in a disco ball. Recovery, when it comes, is hard-fought. But Pedersen doesn’t fight alone. His friends are with him. Love, in spite of everything, endures.

Boy Friends is intimate and confessional. Grief, captured without cliche, leaps from the page. In a story that passes from the dead to the living, from art to life and back again, Pedersen and Hutchison’s connection endures.

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email or In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at

Boy Friends by Michael Pedersen is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Madoc Cairns

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A Gift from Darkness review – harrowing account of a Boko Haram kidnapping
Patience Ibrahim and co-writer Andrea C Hoffmann craft a vivid and valuable account of trauma and survival

Anita Sethi

24, Apr, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Original Sins by Matt Rowland Hill review – electric account of heroin addiction
The author’s artfully constructed debut is a painfully comic and thrillingly immediate memoir about the torments of drug dependency

Anthony Cummins

04, Jul, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Access All Areas by Barbara Charone review – my rock’n’roll friends
One of the most formidable music PRs in rock, ‘BC’ opens up about her decades of hanging out with the likes of Keith Richards, Mark Ronson and Madonna

Barbara Ellen

03, Jul, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
And Then What? by Catherine Ashton review – colourful insider account of European diplomacy
The first and presumably last Briton ever to lead European foreign policy gives us a glimpse of a collaborative approach now sadly lost

Luke Harding

22, Jan, 2023 @8:00 AM

Article image
Between Friends: Letters of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby review – a strange sisterhood
The two writers’ correspondence is psychologically fascinating, revealing a complex friendship of intellectual striving, power play and passion

Rachel Cooke

04, Dec, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Constructing a Nervous System review – a deeply personal account of black female identity
Margo Jefferson’s follow-up to her acclaimed Negroland is another intimate and intelligent memoir that asks searching questions about her heritage and a privileged US society

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty

01, May, 2022 @8:30 AM

Article image
We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole review – sweeping account of Ireland’s evolutions
The veteran journalist and author delves behind the myths of change and boom to give a rich, nuanced picture of Irish life as he and others lived it

Colm Tóibín

20, Sep, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Ruskin Park: Sylvia, Me and the BBC by Rory Cellan-Jones review – an intimate tale of romance and betrayal
The former BBC correspondent’s discovery of his mother’s letters to and from the father he first met at 23 makes for a captivating family detective story – and a poignant social history of Britain

Tim Adams

05, Sep, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
So They Call You Pisher! by Michael Rosen review – style and humour
The poet’s account of his early years in north London is a moving tale of family life enlivened by his trademark humour

Anita Sethi

27, Aug, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Among Others: Friendships and Encounters by Michael Frayn review – heartfelt pen portraits
The playwright’s evocative series of essays profiles some of the brightest figures he’s met in his life, from Alan Bennett and Bamber Gascoigne to childhood friends and first loves

Tim Adams

17, Apr, 2023 @6:00 AM