Man Booker Prize finalist Szalay’s (All That Man Is, 2016, etc.) debut novel, originally published in Britain in 2008, is a satire that turns into something more.
At first glance, Szalay's novel reads as something of a portrait of the gone world, with its protagonist, a London advertising salesman named Paul Rainey, trying to nail down a pre-Brexit deal with a German medical client. What makes the narrative pop, though, is its understanding that not all that much has changed between then and now, at least not in the lives of people such as Paul. An alcoholic (“he spends perhaps two hundred pounds a week on alcohol alone,” the author tells us) and a pothead, Paul is also a devoted father figure to his stepson, Oliver, a snooker prodigy. More to the point, he's trying to keep his head above water, to take care of his responsibilities. The novel starts out reminiscent of Martin Amis’ Money, a satire on the advertising and entertainment industries. Quickly, however, it becomes a more nuanced portrait of desire and its discontents, akin to a novel by Martin’s father, Kingsley: Lucky Jim. Like Amis père, Szalay writes with real heart about his protagonist—a man lost in the middle of his own existence, insufficient in love or ambition, unable to live up to what he wants. At the same time, Paul manages to get if not exactly what he wants, then at least what he might need. After a scheme to acquire a new job goes wrong, he is left to make ends meet in whatever way he can. But while Szalay flirts with a variety of expected dissolutions, he ultimately has something more complex in mind. For Paul, losing his job turns out to be the best thing that could have happened, not because it makes life easier but because he has no choice but to engage. “What would happen,” the character wonders, “if he were to walk out, and stay out. What would he do?” The answer is that he cannot, that he needs this ramshackle life even as it confounds him: disconnections, disappointments, and all.
Szalay has written a book about a man who is not unlike the rest of us, a swirling mass of contradictions, of good intentions and less good actions: eager, desperate even, to make the best of circumstance.