Johan Thoms was born in 1894 with a remarkably large head, and by age 9 he had humiliated an irascible grandmaster in chess. When this brilliant boy left his Bosnian village for the University of Sarajevo, he made a mistake that may have precipitated World War I.
In Thornton’s debut novel, the "overeager, impatient, and optimistic" (and fictional) Thoms is inserted into history as the chauffeur who innocently pilots Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, to their assassination in 1914. A sparkling student, when he gets to college he makes friends and begins a love affair with Lorelei Ribeiro, whose husband had "found a watery grave with the Titanic the previous year." Then his schoolteacher father descends into a mad obsession with Pythagoras and the boy must find work. He becomes an occasional driver for Oskar Pitiorek, an Austrian general based in Sarajevo, and the die is cast. After Franz Ferdinand's death, a guilt-mad Thoms rescues Cicero, a dying orphan; wanders to Portugal’s Lands End; meets Hemingway, Orwell, and Dorothy Parker during the Spanish Civil War; anonymously writes successful novels about "The White Kilted Brigadier"; and eventually grows into "an exquisite old man" seeking a "wormhole in the space-time continuum." Thornton’s arcane references and wordplay dazzle—Thoms’ "slow foreplay with the books" of the Kama Sutra, for instance—and his voice has echoes of Gabriel García Márquez (sans magical realism).
Chaos theory as erudite fiction: a bleak yet comic odyssey exploring and expiating human frailties. Read it slowly and savor it.