It is hard not to love a novel that depicts its teenaged anti-hero perched atop a toilet block roof in the small hours of a “stormwater blue” Sydney night, holding a Chiko Roll up to the moon’s glow as though it once belonged to a court jester named Yorick and pronouncing with stoned solemnity: “There is no food group to which this belongs.”
Something similar could be said for the fiction of Steve Toltz. His settings may roam but their Google Map pins are clustered most tightly around contemporary Australia, a nation he renders with emphatic gaudiness. And yet he sounds like no one in his local tradition, aside perhaps for the shaggy yarn spinner and mock-scholar of Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life. The real parent of 2008’s A Fraction of the Whole and this new work is Saul Bellow. Canada-born but Chicago-bred, possessed of an outsized appetite for both the physical and metaphysical, Bellow is a writer whose agonised first-person creations, from Augie March to Abe Ravelstein, are hyperbole personified.
Imagine that Bellovian mixture of manic intellection and dark soliloquy transferred to semitropical Sydney of recent decades and you have something like Quicksand. Here, as in Toltz’s celebrated debut, there is a superfluity of smarts on display. Characters back talk each other like Chinese table tennis champions; aperçus fly like sparks from the angle-grinder of the authorial imagination. Still, there is a feeling edge to all this dazzle, a sense that the torrential flow of wit is a cover for fear of the void. The hollowest babble is better than the endless silence that will follow when death presses mute.
Aldo Francis Benjamin, the most inveterately fearful of all the novel’s cast, is an epic loser, always has been. At Sydney’s Zetland High School (a universally recognisable invention, built entirely of concrete and lit by “asymmetric beams of ghastly fluorescence”) he managed to both remain a virgin and get accused of rape on the same night. As a young man, he lost his mother’s home to debtors after a series of get-rich-quick schemes disastrously tanked. As an adult, he attempted suicide but took the pills too early and lapsed into unconsciousness in the maternity ward where his ex-wife has just given birth to another man’s child. And these are just the warm-up acts.
Aldo’s best friend, Liam Wilder, has spent a quarter of a century chained to this unwieldy anchor of a man. Though, to be fair, Wilder is an independent screw-up: a failed writer, separated from his wife and daughter, who has taken on a role with the police because extensive research for a stillborn novel made him competent for law enforcement work by accident. If it is Liam’s biography of his old mate, a final roll of the creative dice, which provides the retrospective sweep of the novel, it is Aldo’s genius for falling over that makes the narrative sit up and beg. “The only people worth watching are those who have reached rock bottom and bounced off it,” argues our biographer, “because they always bounce off into very strange orbits.”
Aldo is unique because when he hits bottom he breaks through to greater depths. There is a Job-like quality to the sufferings visited upon the man, and it is only by virtue of the manic hilarity with which he faces the plagues and boils of contemporary existence that we, the reader, can bear to travel alongside him. It is a clever ploy on Toltz’s part to divide the narrative between Liam and Aldo. To sit inside the head of one with such a talent for failure, possessed of such pathological entrepreneurialism and febrile intelligence, is exhausting – it’s like sitting through an entire Woody Allen retrospective in one screening. Those chapters written from Liam’s perspective are a scintilla more subdued: relatively speaking, they’re sorbet for the mind.
Even so. If a narrative so brilliant, so fizzing with lucidity and comedy and horror and hard-nosed empathy as Quicksand has a flaw, it is that Toltz is addicted to more. Passages whose effect is reliant on cumulative details, ideas and outrages piled higher and higher, threaten to smother even our admiration. Exchanges of badinage whose charm lies in their highwire interplay of obscenity and cleverness come to feel as though they are spoken in caps. It is a work in which Aldo’s mental tangents ricochet dangerously off the novel’s walls. It is a work turned up to 11.
The problem with this critique is that it bypasses the nature of Toltz’s achievement. Those who dislike the intensity of Philip Roth at his angriest and funniest – Sabbath’s Theater, say, or Portnoy’s Complaint – are welcome to take a look at Roth’s calmer, earlier works: the stories of Goodbye, Columbus, the straight-bat realism of Letting Go. They are less scandalous, less debilitating reads, admittedly, but they are Buicks of the imagination. The Roth we remember runs on rocket fuel.
Quicksand is a similarly high-octane read; it recalls and updates the tradition of Jewish-American fiction in the same spirit as Gary Shteyngart or Jonathan Safran Foer in the US, even as he eschews explicitly Jewish characters and subject matter. What modulates the tone of Toltz’s work is its accommodation of Australian idioms and experiences. In these pages the old shopfront of Australian masculinity is white-anted with honesty and self-lacerating glee, while the deadpan nihilism of our national humour is elevated to cosmic schtick.
Aldo Benjamin’s fate is as complicated as his character. He will be accused and judged for crimes that laughingly exceed his limited capacity for evil; he will be broken in body and mind and yet retain some imperishable capacity for survival. What is heroic about him is that he never becomes a hero, never ceases to mourn for “every decent version of himself he’d ever imagined”. You’ll have to read the novel to get a sense of the final ignominy visited upon him. Suffice to say that his claims to personal immortality are rigorously tested. Whatever the reality of the matter, he is one of those rare characters who will live on in our collective literary imagination. AF
Hamish Hamilton, 448pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2015 as "Steve Toltz, Quicksand". Subscribe here.