The dark heart of boyhood is a familiar theme, yet it remains a regular fictional staple. In recent years, Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy has been perhaps the most successful example of the genre, with its daemonic rendering of bog Irish and Francie Brady's inexorable slide into madness. For all its fantasy and gore, however, The Butcher Boy believed that there was a real world out there, and described it well - as anyone brought up in the west of Ireland would testify. Although equally bloody, Toby Litt's latest book, Deadkidsongs, is much more sceptical about the novel's remit to describe, to tell the truth. On the contrary, its mission is to deconstruct, to reveal that fiction is spun from lies.
The setting is Amplewick, a sleepy town in the heart of the aptly named Midfordshire. It is the mid-1970s, when unemployment, domestic strife and nuclear war are in the air. Unimpressed by the world they are to inherit - a world, according to one of several narrators, "which was not improving, if anything . . . was getting worse" - Andrew, Matthew, Paul and Peter have decided, on the verge of puberty, that adulthood just isn't worth it.
So they put on khakis, pack up their kitbags and reinvent themselves as a gang called, well, "Gang", as England, a top nation, faces an imminent Russian invasion. Such military-mindedness soon has the boys running into trouble with the grown-ups, particularly with Paul's father, a German-speaking peacenik who is frightened by his son's warlike longings. According to the narrator, Paul's father "was a cruel and unpleasant man". By contrast, Andrew's father, a wife-beater, is loved and honoured as Gang's Major-General.
Just how deeply the boys believe in their fictional world, in "Gang", is one of the novel's central teasers. When the orphaned Matthew, shortly after falling from a tree, contracts meningitis and dies, all signs suggest that the survivors have dug in deeper, deciding to take Gang's motto - "Live to Kill, Kill to Live" - all too literally. Grieving, and possibly unhinged, they plan revenge on Matthew's guardians, his grandparents, who are somehow to blame for all this.
The ensuing bloodbath includes a pair of gouged-out eyes, a bunch of severed fingers and a dead budgie. But, by this stage, the reader has come to suspect that Gang's several narrators are not reliable, and not even several. Hidden behind a series of masks, one of the boys has grown up and has never been able to leave his childhood behind. Such formal complexity means that Deadkidsongs is a frequently bewildering book. Full of biblical resonances and allusions to German high culture - the title derives from Mahler's song sequence Kindertotenlieder - this is a novel with an unsettling, often vertiginous atmosphere, where anything can happen and nothing can be taken for granted.
Where it fails is in its language, a curiously unresolved blend of army officialese and kidspeak: leaves are squishy, blood is drippy and recces are frequently "actionous". One part Colonel Blimp to two parts Enid Blyton, Deadkidsongs's narrator may be half-boy and half-man, but all too often this seems to be Litt's problem as well. As the tension ratchets up, the tuneless, clunking, one-sentence paragraphs (familiar from his previous novels) all but rise up and walk off with the show. Bloodbath or not, the spectacle is curiously cold and unaffecting.
Writers may well peddle in lies that we, as readers, take on trust. Yet it seems that, in undermining such a cosy, age-old relationship, Deadkidsongs is fatally unconvinced by its own lies. Perhaps this is for the best - this gory account of boyhood games gone wrong might have been unbearable otherwise. It is surprising, nevertheless, that Litt has forgotten what every schoolboy knows: if you are going to tell whoppers, tell them as though you believe every word.