When it comes to reading, I seem to be on a roll with Men Who Leave. This time it’s A Perfect Sentence from Patrick Starnes. Kier Buchan, a married fifty something writer of a series of middling-level detective stories is made redundant from his part-time lecturer position at the Open University. This news couldn’t come at a worse time for Buchan. It’s not that he cares that much about the job–he doesn’t. It’s just one more thing that unmoors him from his already unsatisfying life.
When the novel opens, Buchan is sitting in Gatwick airport waiting for a flight and a holiday in Riva del Garda. He’s with his s
aintly long-suffering, patient wife Fran, and his two children 21-year-old Charlie and 16-year-old Cat. Charlie was only persuaded to come along for the trip when it was agreed that his American girlfriend, bartender Cassie could join them, and while the family, quickly fractures into their own spaces at the airport, Buchan, obviously already emotionally distant from his family, wonders off alone musing about Cassie’s suitability for Charlie.
A Perfect Sentence, which is narrated by Buchan, by the way, begins with a worn, bitterly comic tone. He admits that he doesn’t pay “much attention to the political, social, or commercial lurchings of our tired planet.” Think along the lines of Kingsley Amis at his best, but this mood soon passes as the story becomes much much darker, and Buchan finds himself in full Midlife Crisis mode.
What the hell do I think I’m up to? What male menopausal, pre-prostatic madness have I succumbed to? Back off Keir, back right off. Put this afternoon down to anything you want to, put it down to global warming, the Bermuda Triangle, whatever, but don’t get in any deeper, don’t destroy the lives of those you love simply because you’ve fallen for a redhead with world-class tits and legs that won’t give up. But why the hell not?
It’s not easy to move beyond an almost stomach-churning dislike for this character: tragic past combined with midlife crisis or not. For this reader, there was nothing whatsoever to like about this selfish jerk. An incorrigible snob who dislikes almost everyone in his orbit, he cheats on his wife, abandons his children, and careens around Europe until Fate catches up to him in a big way.
In many ways, this story takes a predictable path (man in his 50s hooks up with a sexually rapacious girl young enough to be his daughter), and yet it’s told with such flair, that it’s impossible to tear our eyes away from Buchan’s train wreck of a life. The author’s choice to tell this tale in the first person dangles the possibility of an unreliable narrator. Is everyone really as small-minded and clichéd as Buchan thinks. Is Fran as saintly as Buchan thinks or has she just learned to tune out and tolerate a man who no longer interests her? There were a couple of characters, for example, Josh and Buchan’s father-in-law, who never move beyond stereotype cardboard-cutouts. Starnes is too good a writer for this to be anything other than Buchan’s narrow, one-dimensional view of two characters who are bit players in his life. At one point, Buchan feels sorry for himself when his long-time lover, Ruth, abruptly tells him to ‘fuck off,’ and Buchan argues that he is unable to understand this behaviour–after all the longtime, no strings-affair, spent in various hotels rooms, seemed to work so well for him. This was an affair that was all about “flying the outer edge of the erotic envelope.” And that’s the root of Buchan’s character: it’s whatever works for him and other people exist as pieces on his chess board.
The novel’s rich imagery is powerful: “a wasp expiring like some Roman orgy victim in the sticky heel of a beer glass.” Or Buchan’s mother-in-law: “once a handsome serene woman, she is now a dessicated Gordain knot of nerves for whom contact with even her close family, let alone the outside world (her bridge four is a miraculous exception) is painful.” I’m not a writer–I’m a reader and there were times that this extremely polished novel is almost too polished in its imagery. That minor issue aside, I enjoyed reading this knowing that Cosmic Justice or Karma or Fate … (you take your pick) careened towards Buchan on a collision course. This is a man who had everything: his health, a lovely, kind, tolerant wife, no money worries, holidays abroad, two children, a nice home, and way too much time on his hands. Yet it was not enough for Buchan. Ah… the burdens of middle class life. Some people drive fast, expensive cars to glamorize the image of themselves, and Buchan uses his affairs to add some level of excitement to a life he’d rather not be attached to.
There’s another aspect of this novel that I’d love to comment on, but I can’t due to spoilers. I will say that there’s the shadow of an alternate, less dramatic outcome that would also have served Buchan his just desserts. Pick your poison.