I read this in about an hour and thoroughly enjoyed the sort of tragicomedy mundanity.
The artwork is a sketchy, watercoloury mixture of plain white spaces, browns and blues, with a whimsical eye for detail and the absurd. There was one spread of Reception Area bingo that had me belly laughing.
Sam is a 27 year old former art student, back home at his mum’s after several failed attempts at higher education and something of a breakdown. An introverted, stretchy, somewhat mournful character, he struggles to commit to anything, leaving a series of unfinished projects and shelved ideas in his wake. Out of the blue, he has been offered a job with his absent father’s alleged second cousin, who approached his mum unprompted in a carpark and made an offer. An unspecific role, it seems, that involves a lot of sitting around in the car, listening to stories of the good old days and visiting a lot of industrial estates. Distribution. Clipboards. Filters. Just the sort of mindless, uninteresting occupation that Sam needs to ground him to reality right now.
Enter Keith Nutt, a character so recognisable and so absurdly tragic. Round of belly and hairy of nostril, Keith sees himself as a pillar of the local small business community. Filled with wisdom and advice, he pours his stories into the silent Sam, mildly boastful tales of his old boss and mentor, his bi-monthly carvery dinners with the boys, his spaniel, his influence in the town. Sam soaks them all up. Not a great deal happens. There are some amazing supporting characters, like Hazel-Claire in the bakery and the town ‘character’.
Sam and Keith seem to become fond of one another in their silent, closed-off ways. Keith gets someone to pass on his perceived legacy to, Sam gets a quiet, reflective space to rebuild his sense of self. Is it a story of the generation gap? Of older men struggling to maintain their places in society? Or about the younger generation failing to live up to the promises made through their academic careers? Is it about men, and the way they do (and do not) communicate? Sam describes his humdrum town as “A town of fathers, grandfathers, godfathers, uncles, councillors, garage-owners, newsagents, estate agents, possible freemasons, key janglers and coinshakers, tyre kickers, military memorabiliasts, card carriers and wearer of very strong aftershave”. Is it about depression? Masculinity? Or all the little ways we manage to disappoint ourselves?
I loved the slowburn of this novel, its commitment to the quiet desperation of its characters, the way they slowly altered throughout. It’s a strange transaction that takes place between these very different men. One is socially awkward and thoroughly self-conscious- the other filled with a misplaced confidence and a cast iron moral code. Their time together seems short and on the surface, unsuccessful. But both characters seem to be in better places by the end of the book, so is it a happy story? I don’t know.
It’s shrewdly observed, funny and touching and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s a quiet work of genius, a portrait of an odd couple from a boring old town that hints at all the ridiculous, small ways we manage to become absolutely ridiculous specimens of humanity. A possible masterpiece of contradictory, recognisable brilliance.