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Book Review: Steve Toltz’s 'Quicksand'

Take the story of two best friends and add in some failed dreams and dark humor and you’d have the new novel “Quicksand.” Our book reviewer Scott Southard gives us his review of Steve Toltz’s latest book.

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” For the last few weeks I’ve been haunted by this quote from famous filmmaker and comedian Charlie Chaplin. And I have never seen it play out as well as in Steve Toltz’s latest novel "Quicksand."

When you start reading "Quicksand" and meet its main character Aldo Benjamin, you can’t help but think you are reading a comedy. So much of what he says is witty and playful, but with a very sharp edge. He is in his 40’s, handicapped, and has recently done time in prison. His friend Liam is a cop and a struggling writer who dreams of creating an important novel. He believes he has found that epic in the life story of his friend Aldo. And for good reason, too.

Aldo has had a very unlucky life. He’s basically the human embodiment of Murphy’s Law. If something bad can happen, it will happen to Aldo. He’s falsely prosecuted for a sex crime. He also struggles as an entrepreneur and has one ridiculous idea after another, like renting out spare rooms to hoarders. It all makes for some great artistic fodder. While Liam dreams of turning his friend’s life into a great novel, Aldo’s love interest Stella takes inspirations from his experiences, too. The struggling folk singer scribbles down Aldo’s quotes which then find their way into her song lyrics.

The reason I keep returning to that famous Chaplin quote is that when we begin the story we are in that long shot. We can laugh at Aldo and enjoy his character’s quirks. But with each page Toltz zooms in closer and closer until finally the novel moves into Aldo’s own voice. When he takes over his story, it is in the form of the transcript from his murder trial. Aldo’s ex-lover Mimi has been found dead and Aldo is pleading his case. And just like that, all the comedy is lost. Nothing is funny anymore. We see Aldo for the broken person he is, in both soul and body.

It’s rare you that you pick up a contemporary book so bent on an in-depth character study. Every bit of the action and story is driving the character development. From his mountains of debts to some very painful and explicit experiences during his time in prison, every one of Aldo’s mistake is there for our scrutiny. It’s shocking how guilty a reader can feel for giggling during the earlier pages of the book.

"Quicksand," and the story of Aldo, is painful to read. But it’s also hard to look away from the trainwreck of Aldo’s life. You just want happiness for him, something to go his way, but that’s not the world Toltz has created around Aldo. Some readers might find the book boring in parts because Aldo and Toltz can both get a little longwinded, but I found it fascinating. I like to imagine Charlie Chaplin would have agreed.

Scott Southard is the author of the novels "Permanent Spring Showers" and "A Jane Austen Daydream". You can follow his writing via his blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.

Current State contributor Scott D. Southard is author of A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors, and Megan. Scott received his Master's degree in writing from the University of Southern California. More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.
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