James Lasdun: The Fall Guy

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He’d been Charlie’s fan from the start. He’d begun imitating him slavishly, which turned out to be a highly effective way of gaining his friendship. Charlie had seemed to enjoy having his younger, smaller acolyte at this side, piloting him across the schoolyard when he first arrived, or showing him how to get around London on the bus and Tube. Matthew had accepted his role as the junior partner unquestioningly, but he’d also felt proprietorial about Charlie. He’d liked showing him off, basking in the reflected glory… (266)

And so the relationship between the two cousins continues into manhood – Charlie the successful Wall St banker and Matthew the unsuccessful gourmet chef. Can-do Charlie and Matthew with a feeling of being adrift, and of not quite having the willpower to do anything about it. Charlie and his wife Chloe have invited Matthew to stay for the summer at their place in the Catskills – or he thought they had invited him for the whole summer, so he’s sublet his apartment, but Charlie seems surprised about that. Was “stay as long as you like, stay the whole summer” just one of those things Charlie says without meaning it, in the thoughtlessness of his careless privilege? Matthew is constantly questioning what Charlie and Chloe really think of him – especially Chloe, whom he worships, and with whom, he feels he has an “almost supernatural kinship”. He likes to think he understands the real Chloe much better than Charlie does.

So Matthew is on uneasy ground from the very beginning of the holiday. He’s a superb cook, so he takes on the food shopping and meal preparation and even though he enjoys impressing them, there’s a subtle underlining of his menial position. One guest asks him if he’s the butler. Bit by bit, Matthew, first seen as a bit of a drip hanging on the coat-tails of his generous cousin, becomes a much more complicated character – simultaneously grateful and resentful, self-critical and self-regarding, admiring and contemptuous of Charlie, pure and prurient about Chloe, and thrown into complete confusion when he finds out he doesn’t really know her at all. A little spoiler here – Matthew discovers that Chloe has a lover who has taken a house nearby, and is using the excuse of yoga classes or photography to sneak off to him. Matthew’s reaction is strange – if he has the bond he thinks he has with her, why doesn’t he tell her he knows? Why is his immediate reaction to think he should tell Charlie?

He doesn’t tell Charlie, but Chloe’s affair and its consequences are played out with a Hitchcockian suspense. In glorious weather and careless luxury, the tension is screwed tighter and tighter until there’s a denouement you suspected but couldn’t quite believe was coming. And in the aftermath the real history between Matthew and Charlie comes into the light. Nobody’s illusions are left untouched.

This is a terrific book, a genuinely creepy thriller, psychologically intriguing and thought-provoking, with guilt on many layers, full of small and great betrayals. As the blurb says,
Who is the real victim here? Who is the perpetrator? And who, ultimately, is the fall guy?

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