Monday, January 11, 2010
Book review - A Fraction of the Whole
I don't know how this book got published. Debut book by Steve Toltz is a sprawling 530 pages and details the lives of an extremely misanthropic family. The characters are anti-society, anti-government, anti-religion, and often anti-each other. They struggle to find meaning in love, life and freedom. Not a fun bunch. Who would want to read about that?
Well, me. And I loved it. The book begins with Jasper Dean writing in a prison in Australia (Toltz is Australian). Jasper's father, Martin, has recently died and Jasper is writing to set the story straight. How did the story get crooked? Martin unknowingly embezzled millions of dollars from the Australian public. Yet Martin is the good brother of the family. The other brother, Terry, was arguably the most infamous criminal in Australia. Terry was noted mostly for cleaning up athletics in Australia by killing or injuring corrupt players, coaches, referees, etc.
Although the story starts with Jasper, Jasper begins by relating things Martin had told him. We then get to read a journal Martin wrote which changes the perspective of things. We find that Martin and Terry had difficult childhoods. Terry was an athletic prodigy, recognized for his prowess on the field before he was a teenager. Martin spent several years of his childhood in a coma. When he comes out of it and returns to a "normal" life, he is picked on, his only friend is a woman with whom he is enamored but who loves his brother, and he has already begun to establish the viewpoints that will plague him throughout his life.
Terry gets stabbed while defending his brother from some bullies. He ends up joining them and starts a life of crime. He's eventually caught and sent to prison. He dies when a fire that is indirectly Martin's responsibility burns down the town, taking Terry and their parents.
Martin flees to France to follow his female friend but encounters an odd woman who goes by Astrid (but never states her real name). They end up together for a long period of time and Astrid gives birth to Jasper. Astrid takes her own life when she shows up on a boat dock where there is to be a gang war and she is caught in the crossfire.
Jasper, brought up by Martin and his warped philosophies, struggles to find himself and his own ideas. Martin puts him in school, takes him out, puts him in. Jasper fights to establish his own identity and eventually does.
The dustjacket labels this book as "hilarious" and "hysterically funny". Once again, I'm not quite sure about that. It is funny. But it is awfully dark. To me, Dave Attelle is hilarious and hysterically funny. This book is not Dave Attelle. Some of the blurbs are more in line, though. One compares it to Confederacy of Dunces (an apt comparison), another calls it "a nutty tour de force". Those are more on the money.
I loved it. Toltz's writing is very clear and crisp. The book moves constantly. He has very interesting thoughts on religion, philosophy, life, society, etc. and expresses it all very elegantly. It is clearly the early favorite for my 2010 Book of the Year.