Few terms make the professional book reviewer recoil like the term “first novel.” Am I to be subjected yet again to carefully measured, climate-controlled, Iowa Writers Workshopped prose in which not a word is wasted, everything is either vaguely sadness-washed or delicately precious, we build to a quietly devastating moment of clarity, and I am extravagantly bored?
A new first novel out of Australia being published by the fledgling imprint of Spiegel & Grau, though, made my soul tingle. It’s A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz, a busting bronco ride of philosophical jokes, outrageous crime sprees, unlikely schemes, and comic set pieces. At 530 pages, it’s a wrist-buster, but also a furiously entertaining adventure.
The plot is very much beside the point, but the story begins in prison, where Jasper Dean is being held as a riot percolates. Teasingly, Jasper begins to sketch out why he’s there (his cynical outcast father, Martin Dean, has disappeared, possibly because Jasper killed him) and then backs into a long, long backstory of who made Martin: his criminal mastermind brother, Jasper’s uncle Terry Dean. Terry became a national legend because of his viciously idealistic campaign to clean up sports by assassinating anyone caught cheating–everyone from steroid freaks to horse-race fixers. Martin chose an opposite path, becoming a national pariah by trying to help everyone in a series of starry-eyed schemes that backfire and sow chaos. At one point Martin gets an observatory built on a hill outside of town, uplifting everyone for a while, but its powerful telescope winds up disused and pointing back down into town, starting a fire that burns it down (and kills Terry).
The point to Toltz’s sweeping, madcap, continent-hopping tale of the human need for love, immortality and dirty jokes is his hilarious side riffing on, for instance, a master criminal’s definitive how-to book on crime (containing such chapters as “Motiveless Crimes–Why?’ and “Crime and Fashion: Balaclavas Are Always In”), a nutty love affair in Paris (“She had a lot of hair. It went down her back. It went into my mind. It covered her shoulders & my thoughts”), the downside of child-rearing (“To have a child is to be impaled daily on the spike of responsibility”) and vindictive females. You know you’re in trouble when you not only catch your girlfriend crying, but holding a jar under her face as she does so and confessing, in a reference to the guy she dated before you, “I’m collecting my tears because I’m going to make Brian drink them.”