THE CASE OF THOMAS N. by John David Morley


Email this review


Morley, a young British writer whose nonfiction (Pictures from the Water Trade, In the Labyrinth) has been evocative and occasionally powerful, stumbles badly with this fiction debut: a pretentious foray into existential suspense, about evenly divided between a thin, nightmarish narrative and murkily philosophical interruptions. Thomas N., about 16 or 17, is found by police and interrogated; the boy--destitute, confused, unwashed, undernourished, perhaps coming out from an opium-induced haze--has total amnesia; he suffers from vague neurotic guilt but has no identity. (He never even uses the word ""1."") Committed temporarily to a boys' ""Home,"" Thomas lives in daily fear while having a series of strange, portentous encounters: overhearing a woman's monologue about childbirth; witnessing creepy sexual obsession; listening to a parable about the human need to be caged. Then, allowed to move to a boardinghouse (where the landlady's daughter may be a sex-abuse victin), passive Thomas winds up following a random acquaintance to a wild party--where, after an orgasmic clinch with a girl named Nancy, he wakes up to find Nancy bloodily murdered and decapitated. And the subsequent chapters involve Thomas' attempted cover-up, his ambiguous ""confession,"" his trial (a tedious rehash)--and the broodings of young police-officer Havel, who suspects that the murder was really committed by Thomas' neighbor Onko, a hunchbacked superscholar who fervently believes that ""the Modern Crime is the crime with no motive."" Other ponderous issues--aggression-as-identity, guilt-as-identity, alternate universe, consciousness, alienation--also receive talky airings. But the metaphysics remain pale, blurry imitation-Camus throughout. And, despite a few stretches of leanly creepy action, the narrative--which leads only to more ambiguity and hollow irony--is too contrived and jumpy for Kafka-esque impact, too opaque and neutral (in a studied European manner) for any down-to-earth reader involvement.

Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 1987
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown