Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton
The summer after I graduated from high school, I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Ireland and England–the former to finally visit my namesake county and the latter to soothe my raging Anglophilia. When I visited the British Library, I naturally wandered around with my mouth open, pen and notebook in hand, writing down book titles left and right. This is how I discovered Mr. Toppit; it was being sold in the British Library Shop. When I returned home, however, I discovered that Mr. Toppit wasn’t available Stateside for the foreseeable future. I put it down on my list and forgot about it, so when I joined NetGalley, I was utterly shocked to find it available for review. It’s been a bit of a long journey to Mr. Toppit, but I finally got my hands on it.
In Mr. Toppit, the Haymans have never been particularly comfortable with Arthur Hayman’s legacy–namely, a children’s fantasy series entitled The Hayseed Chronicles, in which a boy named Luke Hayseed struggles with the mysterious and unseen Mr. Toppit. After Arthur’s death in 1981, the books become wildly popular with the help of Laurie Clow, an American radio host whose love for the books goes global. The already dysfunctional Haymans struggle with this new cult of celebrity, especially Luke, who has never been able to escape his literary doppelgänger–and must come to terms with what his father has left him.
I like an eye for detail in a writer, especially a writer of contemporary fiction. Elton has that eye, which he tones down when writing in Luke’s voice, because while Luke is certainly witty, he’s no writer. But there are a few tantalizingly short passages from Arthur’s perspective where it blossoms. Arthur is a very sad man (as one of his former colleagues puts it) who always feels like his already thin luck is about to change for the worse–which it often does. As he tries to build a life with his wife, Martha, he chastens himself for thinking that things might, for once in his life, go right. While we never get to read much of The Hayseed Chronicles, the passages we do get reflect Arthur’s specific world view; the initially powerless Luke moves in a dark world controlled by an unseen force. It’s as much escapism for Arthur as it is for its legions of fans.
After reading Misery, I’ve wanted to read a novel that deals with the dark side of fandom, and Mr. Toppit almost goes there in Laurie’s subplot. Laurie is a woman who has very little going for her until she encounters Arthur and the books. From that point on, she’s a woman on fire. She’s utterly consumed by the books and the mythology she constructs around the Haymans, especially Luke–because, in Laurie’s mind, Luke Hayman and Luke Hayseed are one and the same. Laurie’s skewed world view is both interesting and mildly horrifying, especially since we see it through Luke’s eyes. Laurie is the culmination of every crazy fan that thinks the books are based on Luke’s life, which Luke darkly dismisses towards the beginning. (After all, Luke says, if Luke was based on him, then the stories should have started as a bedtime story.) Luke himself is a wonderfully ordinary guy, trying his best to live a subdued, laddish existence and often failing–he loses his virginity to a girl obsessed with the books. I have to say, I really liked that he was so ordinary; it makes the legacy of The Hayseed Chronicles that much more overwhelming.
For most the novel, Elton manages that delicate balancing act between Luke’s plot and Laurie’s subplot–we only need to know Laurie’s story as it relates to her interaction with Luke’s, and Elton weaves together the stories to great effect. But it goes off the rails towards the end, when Elton includes a passive-aggressive Christmas letter from the parents of Luke’s first lover, a girl named Merry. On its own, it’s darkly funny (who talks about on-going child abuse investigations in their Christmas cards?), but in the novel it ruins the momentum of the work and feels superfluous. Perhaps Elton thought we’d care enough about Merry to want to know what happens to her; I didn’t. From that point, the novel starts to spread itself too thinly–it feels like Elton wants to cover everything, instead of continuing its focus on Luke’s story, which is the heart of the novel (along with the rest of the Haymans). This even infects the ending. The novel opens with the cryptic ending of The Hayseed Chronicles, where Mr. Toppit finally emerges from the Darkwood, and ends with Luke emerging from the inspiration for the Darkwood. While I wouldn’t want to remove the subtlety of the ending, Elton tries to make a point about stories using an entirely different story we’ve heard about only three times in the novel. I was transfixed by most of the novel, so I found the wandering ending disappointing.
Bottom line: Mr. Toppit is transfixing for the first three quarters, as the ordinary Luke struggles with his father’s literary legacy and the legions of fans who firmly believe that Luke Hayman is Luke Hayseed of The Hayseed Chronicles–who all culminate in Laurie, the American whose all-consuming love for the books is the catalyst for their global popularity. But towards the end, Elton oddly broadens the scope of the novel, making it fall apart. Still, it’s worth a read.
I read this digital galley for free on NetGalley.
Mr. Toppit will be released on November 9th–tomorrow!