The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms
Ian Thornton (The Friday Project 2014, Trade Paperback) 319 pages, cover price n/a
It is when one finds one's self starting to skim the pages of a novel, looking for something interesting to happen, that it begins to dawn that the book may be in trouble. That is exactly what happened to me with Ian Thornton's novel, although I must say I made it through two-thirds, or roughly 200 pages before I started to pray, 'Dear God make it end!' Still, that is no generally considered a Good Sign.
The thing is, I know what Thornton was aiming for, and his target was the sort of book I generally admire and look forward to reading. It must have been forty years ago or so that I read Robert Coover's The Public Burning, a highly fictionalized account of the Rosenberg Trial, and that reading made me admire the sheer audaciousness of taking an historical event along with its personages and then twisting and re-shaping them like lumps of Play-Do. Such metaphoric nose-tweaking is quite a fun little sub-genre of fiction and it has its serious value. An object seen in the warped reflection of a funhouse mirror makes us appreciate the true shape of the object all the more, for we concentrate on re-assembling it into its original form.
Before we continue, I suppose I had best tell you what The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is about. The real-life Thoms may or may not have been the chauffeur of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Countess Sophie when they were assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. The chauffeur took a wrong turn, the heir to the Austrian throne was dead, Serbs were blamed, dominos of alliances fell, and World War One was the result. In Thornton's version, Thoms feels incredible guilt, as well he might.
From the start of the book through to the immediate aftermath of the assassination – Thoms flees, although it is rather annoying that we are not told how it was that he was not immediately arrested and interrogated as a possible conspirator – I was enjoyably engaged with the story. Thoms is in love with an American widow named Lorelei, who in his flight he abandons, yet she remains determined to stay loyal and find him again.
What then follows is another 150 pages or so of Thoms fleeing and Lorelei staying loyal across a span of decades, decades and decades. Nothing happens. Oh, there are some interesting vignettes involving Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Dorothy Parker. Wait. Here I must stop for a moment and unload. Mrs Parker is a recurring figure in this novel, and to an extent that Thornton writes several pages of her supposed Unpublished Diary. He can no more write in the style of Dorothy Parker than I can write in the style of Guy de Maupassant. My French is about as good as his Parker.
All defenses of the legacy of perhaps my favourite woman writer aside, Thoms as a character just became annoying to me. He never struggles with anything but his conscience. He is well-funded by an Austrian Count, he becomes a best-selling author, he has loyal companions, he becomes eccentric. And he never, ever develops at all. He does not change a smidge even when he finally takes delivery of thousands of letters Lorelei has written him over the years. Oh he feels badly enough; but it's not like he actually does anything about it.
So is this a sort of shaggy dog story? Sure it is. But show me three people who claim to really like shaggy dog stories and I'm willing to bet you that at least two of them are liars.
Be seeing you.