- Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society
You're probably aware that I'm a major fan of Minneapolis writer James Lileks (though you probably don't know—because I've been so discreet about it—that I once did a half hour of radio with him in studio). So when he re-released his first novel, Falling Up the Stairs, as a Kindle book I snapped it right up.
How shall I express my reaction? It's not a bad book. If you're a fan of Lileks, you're likely to get a lot of entertainment from it, as I did.
But it's not a particularly good novel.
It suffers from a congenital disorder of first novels—too much showing off. The author is eager to throw everything in, to demonstrate his range and complexity. And this being Lileks, the range is broad and the complexity variegated.
But the book can't figure out what it wants to be, and the reader ends up with narrative whiplash.
The story's narrator is Jonathan Simpson, who when we meet him is “social editor” of a newspaper in a small Minnesota town. He's depressed because his career is going nowhere and his girlfriend (whose career is going somewhere) has left him to move to New York.
His life gets quickly shaken up when, almost all at once, he gets fired from his job and learns that he has inherited a Minneapolis mansion from his eccentric aunt, whom he never much liked. He drives to the city in his AMC Pacer, throws his parasite cousin out of the house, and comforts his senile butler and motherly cook. Then a series of fatal poisonings begin, the work of a health food terrorist group (!)
You may have intuited the problem. You start with a comic premise and comic characters (I thought the beginning fully worthy of Wodehouse), and slide into terrorism and the death of the innocent. Wodehouse morphs into Saki, who becomes James Patterson. I'm not saying such a transition is impossible, but it's pretty hard, and a debut soloist should probably stick to one or two octaves.
There's also a serious problem with the classic Kindle formatting glitches. Lileks announced the other day on his blog that he was pulling the book temporarily to fix the problems, but it's still up on Amazon. So I'm not sure what you'll be getting if you buy it today. My copy had serious problems with paragraph breaks in the wrong places, something that interferes with dialogue passages. There were also a couple points where stretches of text got duplicated.
So I can't wholeheartedly recommend Falling Up the Stairs. On the other hand it's only three bucks for the e-book, and it's Lileks, so it's probably still good value for money.