A friend of mine once recommended Michael Marshall Smith’s brilliant Only Forward by saying that Stark, the narrator, was such a relatable character that every time he acted the dick, my friend felt the need to call his mother. I think Pierre Hoffman may be my Stark. And let me tell you, I winced a lot of times when reading about the character of a hypochondriac thirty-two-year-old teacher who neurotically obsesses over so much small crap that he lets life pass him by while he lives in squalor as an anti-social hermit.
And then of course, there’s the scene where he tries to make out with his sister…
Hoffman, I’m pleased to say, is not a cipher that I see myself in, but it is hard not to get caught up in his apathy and low-level despair.
This is a peculiar book in a way – and I don’t just mean the scene where the main character tries it on with his sister. (Well, I don’t JUST mean that scene…) It is almost a case of false advertising: the blurb tells of a teacher taking a class in the wake of a colleague’s suspicious suicide, who becomes increasingly paranoid about the slightly-too-well-behaved students. Sure, that happens; it’s the frame the whole story hangs on, but in terms of page-count it’s actually only a small part of the book. The book as a whole skips from this to Hoffman’s relationship with his fellow teachers, with his sister and brother-in-law, random people he meets as he deals with the death of his predecessor, and the general malaise he finds himself in from day to day.
That having been said, the blurb on the back of my copy of the book is nowhere near as misleading as the cover to the copy shown in the above link, which features a woman’s naked back/lace-covered derriere. Let me be clear here: there is no sex in this book. Hoffman once attempts to grope his sister and is politely rebuffed and other than that sex is barely mentioned, except when Hoffman admits that he’s probably not going to have any with the character who might otherwise have been the love-interest in a more conventional narrative.
All that aside, I loved this book. It was bleak, poetic, funny and engaging. I know it sounds sort of horrible, and it is, but in the best way possible. Best book I’ve read in a while.