James Lasdun is being stalked — again — and there’s nothing he can do about it. Considering that his previous book, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, was about his unpleasant experiences with a real-life stalker, you’d think he would watch his back.
But this time the stalker is fame. With twelve rapturously received volumes of poetry and fiction to his credit, he has given sufficient alms to oblivion. Now it’s time to reap the rewards scattered so haphazardly by the Muse before lesser writers.
The Fall Guy is a thriller that belongs on the literary top shelf with Graham Greene and Charles McCarry, a thriller in the way Henry James’s The Turn Of The Screw is a ghost story. The thrills
it offers are those of narrative and philosophy. It is a moral tale in which Good and Evil do battle in the minds of its characters, and the story teller is lying to himself — and so to us.
I confess that I was mesmerized by Lasdun’s first novel, The Horned Man. I saw in it everything I found missing in contemporary American fiction: elegance, wit, and surprise. In it, Lasdun runs rings around the work of highly touted “literary” best-sellers so lacking in merit that to skim one is to have read them all. On the basis of The Horned Man alone, I would go out on a limb and aver that Lasdun may be touched with greatness. (And since tree limbs are precarious, it’s reassuring to imagine that I might be joined up there by the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, who made a film based on a Lasdun story.)
That claim ventured, let me attach a warning label to The Horned Man and The Fall Guy: neither are suitable for weak minds or faint hearts. They are likely to induce existential dread, (can our species really be this bad?) and finally, terror. (Yes, it can.)
The Fall Guy might be called an existentialist chamber thriller. When compared with The Bourne Identity, say, it is No Exit. It has just one brief sex scene, and one murder, dispatched in a paragraph. The plot is bare bones. Charlie is a wealthy (what else?) banker with a trophy wife, Chloe, who invites his poor cousin Matthew to spend the summer with them in their mountaintop house in “Aurelia.”
Charlie uses Matthew as his go-fer, cook, and bottle washer. Matthew stays because he is in love with Chloe. While out shopping for dinner one day (as a bonus, the author provides recipes for some tasty repasts) Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair with a film director. Matthew is a stalker.
For Woodstockers, the main character in The Fall Guy will be Aurelia, known in the real world as Woodstock, which is fully and fairly described, down to swimming in the Millstream and the members of the Rainbow tribe who cavort there. But the news about Woodstock may be as awful as the fictional murder at the center of The Fall Guy: the bankers are coming. The one percent who own the world may glamorize us first, but in the end they will swallow us.