THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

When posthumous fame becomes a reluctant inheritance

ELTON ELTON (Other Press)
By Matthew Peters
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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In Charles Elton’s debut novel, “Mr. Toppit,’’ an elderly English film director, Wallace Carter, takes to the stage after a rescreening of one of his classic films. The ensuing question-and-answer session is excruciating. Carter, ill and confused, responds erratically to the questions by forwarding his ingrained beliefs about the ills of modern cinema (“[t]oo much cutting these days. Everything’s cut-cut-cut’’). At one point he ends an answer by taking off his glasses and cleaning them “with the end of his tie.’’

The detail is memorable because the action is both ordinary and slightly odd. It is a quietly comic moment that both creates humor at the expense of Carter and raises our sympathy for him (we feel his serene confusion). Elton’s writing is at its best in this kind of comic set-piece, with its taut, keen descriptions of mannerism and appearance (looking more “like a retired bank manager than a famous Hollywood director,’’ Carter acknowledges the audience by accomplishing “a creaky ‘Rocky’-style victory punch with his arms over his head’’).

The novel centers on Luke Hayman, the son of Arthur Hayman, whose series of books, “The Hayseed Chronicles,’’ acquires a Harry Potter-like popularity shortly after the writer’s death in a traffic accident in the early 1980s. As the writer lies dying on a Central London street, he is comforted by an American tourist, Laurie Clow, who develops an obsession with the man and his (then obscure) books. She is taken up by the grudgingly grateful upper-middle-class family of the dead writer: Martha, the urbane widow; Rachel, the unsteady, charming daughter; and Luke, the quiet, observing son, whose fictionalized appearance as the protagonist of “The Hayseed Chronicles’’ will win him an unwanted fame. Much of the humor of the novel emerges from the awkward relations between the unglamorous Laurie and the poised, attractive Haymans.

The ties between them become tighter when Laurie returns to the United States. She is employed as a DJ at a hospital radio station, where she reads “The Hayseed Chronicles’’ to a captive, though quickly entranced audience. By a complex process of publicity (Elton here draws on his professional knowledge: He has worked as a publisher and as a literary agent) the novels become international bestsellers. The final third of the novel — in which Elton’s writing (conducted largely through the first-person voice of Luke) is most assured and engaging — details the consequences of this fame for Laurie and the Haymans.

The plot is elaborated by gradual disclosures about the Hayman family and Martha and Arthur’s marriage. These revelations end in a darkly arresting conclusion whose power is perhaps lessened by the swift precision with which it is achieved. The tragic subject matter is never allowed to burst out of the receptacle of the form. Everything clicks neatly into place.

Nevertheless, the narrative shifts with impressive ease through different time zones and locations (1980s England and Los Angeles; and 1950s Soho in a flashback to Arthur and Martha’s early married life). Elton’s careful handling of a complex and thickly populated plot bears some resemblance to that of Jonathan Coe, with whom Elton shares a darkly humorous perspective on English life. At times Elton’s writing also shares the clichéd fluency of Coe’s less distinguished work (“Martha put a hand over her mouth as if she was about to be sick’’; a bookshop is stocked with “thick, glossy bestsellers’’).

But Elton unobtrusively and skillfully deploys comic detail in his rendering of character, as when Martha and Rachel are said to resemble a “deranged Madonna and Child’’ and when Laurie, a celebrity for her part in the fame of “The Hayseed Chronicles,’’ loses her awkwardness when she appears on television so that “she seemed to glide around as if she was on castors.’’ These moments call to mind an earlier English comic novelist, Anthony Powell, whose delineations of character commonly consist of sharp analogies of this kind.

Elton is also particularly good at capturing the poignant self-consciousness of the teenaged Luke, especially in his encounters with the celebrity society of Los Angeles, where he travels to stay with the newly famous Laurie toward the end of the novel. His voice is full of wistful, insecure reflections, as when he nervously approaches Laurie’s formidable, suspicious mother, Alma, and wishes that she had signed “a legal document saying she had invited me in of her own free will.’’

It is in details of this kind that Elton’s writing is most successful. In comparison, the larger-scale, carefully wrought disclosures and workings of the plot seem less satisfying.

At the heart of Arthur Hayman’s books, the character of Mr. Toppit is an enigmatic, unseen presence who appears only at the very end of the final novel. Hayman’s readers are given to musing on his significance, but Luke finds his mystery underwhelming. Similarly, the hinted-at family secret that underpins the narrative of “Mr. Toppit’’ ultimately seems empty and something of a device.

In that respect, the comparison with Coe works to Elton’s disfavor, since the revelations and enigmas of Coe’s novels are often powerfully realized and seem central to the narratives. But, then, Coe is the greatly more experienced novelist. Elton may achieve these effects in later works.

Matthew Peters is a freelance critic who lives in Cambridge, England. He can be reached at peters.matthew91@yahoo.com.

MR. TOPPIT
By Charles Elton
Other Press, 388 pp., paperback, $15.95