I feel compelled to call this book the Irish answer to JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist of Slipping may not be a teenage Holden Caulfield but he’s still going through a crisis — and a mid-life one at that, which can be just as unpleasant as the hormone-induced manic ravings of Salinger’s hero. In the same way that Holden Caulfield has a gut reaction to the ‘fake’ society of his time, Toomey’s Albert Jackson has a gut reaction to what he calls “the murderous, crimson flow of banality”. And boy, does he react. In some ways, the madness of Albert Jackson, under-achiever, schoolteacher and bored husband, is a kind of rant, but it’s a rant accompanied by a saw, a shovel and a rope. Holden Caulfield just flunks a few classes. Albert, on the other hand, is limbering up for murder.
The structure of the book is clever. It gives us Albert’s first person perspective on the events that lead on to his crime. Then it changes focus, giving other perspectives — for instance, that of the author Albert hires to tell his tale in a last ditch attempt to redeem himself; then there are Albert’s children, who discuss their father’s so-called insanity. And finally there are the remaining characters in the story, whose testimonies are delivered as a mirror image of Albert’s own; thus there is Albert as he sees himself, and Albert as others see him. The effect is interesting — rather like a game of Cluedo. Terri Carlson, in the coffee shop, with the saw and shovel; Albert, on the stairs, with the hammer. And so it goes.
This is probably not a book I would have found by myself because I don’t know the author, but I’m very glad I did find it. It’s a novella of about 150 pages, and the quality of the writing is immensely entertaining. The tone of the narrative becomes more and more caustic and derailed as events progress. Albert eyes a teenage boy plugged into his iPhone at the coffee shop table, and notes how the “curvature of the contemporary spine” causes him “peculiar offence”.
“So I swept the coffee mug from the table and sent it to splinters on the path outside the shop. Then I stood up, tucked in my shirt, chest and jaw protruding, and stared defiantly at the boy. Let that be a fucking lesson to you!”
It isn’t, of course. Albert, like all mid-life crisis specimens, does not quite understand that the only thing that interests the young is the young. Consequently, when he falls for a younger teacher at the school, he doesn’t get it then either. The yearning for a fresh start and the youthful charms of Aimee Quinn simply isn’t going to happen. One final chance; is it really too much to ask? Regrettably, yes, but Albert only finds that out later, once he has committed the “unforgivable”.
The only real disappointment, for me, came then. I suppose I was expecting something more dramatic than the ending the book delivers. It kind of fizzles out a bit, which is a pity because it really had me turning the pages all the way through, and revelling in the sort of Camus-like ambiance of the man who commits a crime of which he has both a stark, brilliant understanding, and no understanding at all. The protagonist’s state of mind is superbly drawn, shackling the reader along from one ghastly step to the next according to Albert’s dream “to be private; to do as I please; to eat or not eat; to read; to travel; to be the man I’d intended but never spoken of; to be revered; to live again beyond the leeching shadow of obligation…” — all of which leading up to the acquisition of the tools he needs to do the job: a saw, a shovel and a length of rope.
“Trees or heavy shrubbery?” asks the waitress in the coffee shop.
“Both really” says Albert.
At length, when we meet Albert again after the dust has settled, the full force of his delusion bears down on him, beating a path through the chasms of his mind as he finally starts to talk. He should have taken a leaf from Holden Caulfield’s book. “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody”. What is missing here though, is the aftermath, which Toomey does not really give us. What effect, for example, would Albert’s confession have had on his children? We need to know to have closure. As it is, all we have is a glimpse of that nasty phenomenon of the human psyche: regret, while what we really want is consequence.
Any Cop?: A highly entertaining reflection on the cost of living out your fantasy.