Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review -- "Mr. Toppit" by Charles Elton

I have a soft spot for novels about adult children who have been screwed up by the artistic legacies of their famous fathers. Jonathan Carroll's "The Land of Laughs" is one of the best of that bunch, and I'm now enjoying "The Unwritten," the Vertigo Comics series written by Mike Carey.

So when I saw "Mr. Toppit" by Charles Elton, I figured it would be right up my alley. And it is, mostly. Although I can't recommend it without reservation, this first  novel does have its charms.

When semi-successful children's author Arthur Hayman is run over by a cement truck on a London street, the first person to offer him comfort is Laurie Clow, an awkward American tourist on a break from all the domestic drama back home. Before Arthur's family -- wife Martha and offspring Rachel and Luke -- have a chance to convene at the hospital or to even learn that Arthur has, in fact, passed away, Laurie has begun taking control of Hayman's posthumous career.

Largely through Laurie's manipulations, "The Hayseed Chronicles" become a multimedia phenomenon, inspiring new illustrated editions and a BBC miniseries. Of the Haymans, it is unstable Rachel who most enjoys the spotlight, while irritable Martha retreats from it completely. Luke, who shares his first name with the series' young protagonist, can most clearly see celebrity's alluring double edge.

Elton, a former literary agent, worked for the estate of A.A. Milne and knew well the story of Christopher Robin Milne, perhaps the ultimate ambivalent literary inspiration, who eventually grew tired of answering questions about Winnie the Pooh and that damned 100-Acre Wood. In Luke Hayman, Elton captures what it might feel like to be famous for nothing more than being the apparent namesake of a character beloved by children worldwide.

Unlike "The Land of Laughs" or "The Unwritten," there is no supernatural aspect to "Mr. Toppit." The eponymous character is a shadowy figure who haunts "The Hayseed Chronicles" without appearing until the last page of the fifth, final volume. And "Mr. Toppit" itself feels incomplete, somehow lacking the narrative cohesion that would make it succeed completely. Elton creates interesting characters and writes individual scenes with a sure hand, but "Mr. Toppit" ultimately measures as a near-miss.

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