Thursday, October 28, 2010

And out of the Darkwood Mr. Toppit comes...

Mr. Toppit
by Charles Elton

When a reader decides to give a debut novel a try, all they have to base the decision on, really, is the book's description. That's what grabbed my interest in Mr. Toppit, Charles Elton's debut, and I was not disappointed. It's not a work of literary fiction that's going to set the world on fire, but is some pretty good story-telling.

The novel revolves primarily around two characters with a most unusual bond. The first is overweight, middle-aged Laurie Clow of Modesto, CA. It didn't take me long to see there was something a little... off about Laurie, a sort of desperation, almost. But even now it's hard to articulate exactly what it is about her. It's 1981, and Laurie is vacationing in England. She witnesses a terrible accident; a stranger is hit by a truck. She rushes to the scene and tries to comfort this man, Arthur Hayman, as he lay dying.

Later, at the hospital, Laurie somehow becomes attached to Arthur's grieving family: his wife, Martha; 17-year-old daughter, Rachel; and 13-year-old son, Luke. It is while visiting the family's home that Laurie learns Arthur was the author of five not especially successful children's novels called The Hayseed Chronicles. The protagonist of the series is Luke Hayseed, a character based on his son, and it is Luke Hayman who is the other central character of the tale.

The first half of the book relates how Laurie comes into the Hayman's dysfunctional lives, and how she is somehow transformed by her experience with Arthur. She's a bit obsessed by him, his family, and certainly by the books he wrote. As a character, I found her to be bizarre, and yet still entirely believable. There are a lot of odd people in the world, and by and large they're fascinating to watch.

Roughly the second half of the novel takes place five years later in LA. Laurie, almost single-handedly, has turned The Hayseed Chronicles into a world-wide phenomenon. Imagine that Harry Potter was identifiably based on a real kid. That's what Luke Hayman has been contending with. During a summer visit, we get to see the myriad ways his and Laurie's lives and relationships have changed. Throughout the novel, Elton manages to insert small mysteries and questions in a not too heavy-handed way, but gradually revelations do come about.

Not everything in this novel is a slam dunk. I wasn't sure that all the changes of perspective and POV were necessary or elegantly handled. Perhaps not every narrative thread paid off in the end, but I kind of enjoyed the diversions along the way. And there was so much to like. Amidst the darkness and drama, there is a lot of excellent satire going on. At times I was almost laughing aloud. And I found Luke to be sympathetic in a way that Laurie was not, and I cared about him and those he loved.

You may be wondering who the eponymous Mr. Toppit is. He's the mostly unseen villain of the Hayseed Chronicles. The events of all five books revolve around him, but he doesn't make a true appearance until the last line of the last book. As I read Mr. Elton's story, I wondered if Mr. Toppit would make a last minute appearance. It's not that simple. The final pages of the book cover several years, from the late 80's to the mid 90's. Did Mr. Toppit make an appearance? Maybe...

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