A fast-paced, bizarre, iconoclastic farce anchored by an endearing filial relationship between a journalist and his assistant.
Finch’s novel follows Arthur Magpie—abrasive, highbrow, English journalist and high-functioning, chain-smoking alcoholic—who almost always calls his assistant “darling” and crashes his automobile into something on almost every road. The narrator of the tale is Arthur’s assistant, Ian Swansea, who recounts in an author’s note that he was employed by Mr. Magpie from 2002-2010, following their first chance encounter during an incident involving stampeding bulls, loose from a staged apocalypse complete with ceremonial robes and a Venetian mask. Finch’s book is exhaustively funny; as Arthur and Ian move from assignment to assignment, there are book jokes, philosophy jokes, smutty jokes, pratfalls and shtick, and wild plot turns around every corner. The story is as outlandish as its chapter titles, which include “Another Donkey Holiday,” “Disco Cupcakes” and “Burning the Ken.” The one-liners are riotous—“Christ was a lot of things, but he was a socialist first and foremost”—and lampooned versions of political figures and authors, the targets of Arthur’s cutting pen or irreverent tongue, are amusing. But the strongest laughs come from the work Finch puts into developing Arthur and Ian’s rapport. Most of the novel reads like an idea for a whodunit drowned in Benzedrine and barbiturates and re-imagined as a satire of the last few decades. Without the genuinely caring master-acolyte relationship, the book is multidirectional to the point of being a bit of a blur. So many characters are introduced and continents traversed, literally and metaphorically, that the loose plot doesn’t unwind until the end of Chapter 5 (out of 10), “After Hours in the Afterlife,” when it’s revealed that the death threat Arthur received earlier was perpetrated by a former student, and that the story racing toward resolution, peaceful or bloody, regards the plot on Arthur’s life. Through it all, Arthur doesn’t stop for air, and readers won’t either, so long as they don’t mind diversions.
Finch treats serious issues whimsically without being flippant, to deeply entertaining effect.