Book Review: Quicksand
by Steve Toltz
Simon & Schuster, 2015
At the heart of Quicksand, Steve Toltz’s follow-up to his Man Booker-nominated debut novel A Fraction of the Whole, is the character of Aldo Benjamin, the unluckiest yutz on Earth. He first meets the book’s questionable hero and narrator, Liam Wilder, when they’re both in high school, and Aldo almost immediately entangles Liam in how determinedly odd he is:
Aldo had transferred to our school in the middle of the penultimate year, and about a month into our friendship, after an all-nighter on pills, Aldo dragged me on a dawn tour of the shitty neighborhood he grew up in. We had to take two buses to get there, and as the sun rose over the city skyline, we ambled past forgettable stretches of warehouses running alongside a train station that “no unarmed woman should dream about walking from, even at dusk,” past a greasy takeout shop where “one employee always kept a lookout for a health official,” until we arrived at a narrow warren of residential streets where the people coming out of their houses were “uglier than in the beachside suburbs but not as ugly as in the mountains.” The houses were all massive, all empty, and all had FOR SALE signs on their front lawns. The sight of his old home territory was overexciting Aldo; as we moved through it, he bombarded me with random facts about his family that he seemed to be reciting from a census report: Only 35 percent of them were overweight, they had blue eyes, his mother’s side carried the degenerative diseases, his father’s side had all the madness. Mostly, he said, they were B negative. I thought: What the fuck is he talking about?
The entanglements continue throughout their lives. Liam, a failed writer, reluctantly becomes a police officer in order to support himself and his family, and his official capacity comes in very handy to Aldo, whose “curse” of irredeemable bad luck lands him in one legal scrape after another, culminating in the book’s long showpiece second half, which turns around Aldo’s trial for the murder of his girlfriend. The wheelchair-bound Aldo’s volcanic courtroom indiscretions are dramatized with impeccable comic timing, as are the long chunks of his autobiography that lead up to it, narrated by Aldo with his signature manic logorrhea, as when the talks about one of the many crappy jobs he took in order to impress one of his many girlfriends (all of whom, for what it’s worth, show up later at the trial to speak in his defense):
I had to wait in the kitchen, shivering in subarctic air conditioning, scrubbing plates and shining counters while the chef prepared the food simulacrum, after which I pushed carts through poorly lit corridors into rooms where I was to cultivate a disgust at human sexuality I’ll never entirely shake off, delivering overcooked meals on soggy bread under silver domes to bargain-obsessed adults who dressed like rich ten-year-olds and didn’t stop sniffing cocaine off strippers’ tits when I entered. That, and the overabundance of women who when talking to their dogs referred to themselves as “mummy,” and the Sri Lankan concierge who wined about the day globalization finally reached his village but passed him by personally, and the guests who stared at me meaninglessly, frustrated and embarrassed outside their rooms, unable to master the electronic key, made me hate every minute, but because a stubborn illogical part of me wanted to impress and win Stella back, I was determined to stick it out …
At the novel’s outset, Liam is struck with the inspiration to revive his dreams of being a writer by using his friend’s weird, convoluted life story as his core of material, even though Aldo himself is skeptical (“I’m nobody’s muse,” he insists). And these two strands – a writer who’s too timid to live the kind of life he wants to write about, and a hapless innocent who can’t understand why a clearly novelistic series of catastrophes keeps happening to his life – are intertwined masterfully by Toltz, who never puts a comic foot wrong in the entire course of the novel. If this kind of tightly-constructed comic masterpiece is Steve Toltz’s idea of the dreaded sophomore slump, his career is going to be something of a marvel.