Book review: Quicksand by Steve Toltz is too long and too full of itself

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 10:49pm


First impressions are not easy to shake. It's true of Aldo Benjamin - the all but intolerable protagonist of Steve Toltz's high-caffeine second novel, a grizzled ex-con in a wheelchair who talks as if he has swallowed a particularly observant writer's daybook of cleverisms.

His long-suffering friend, Liam, a cop with literary aspirations (surely the worst kind), calls him an "amateur psychoanalyst", but as smart-arses go, Aldo goes further.

Every growling utterance is a glinting aperçu, sardonic theorem or pithy barb - here a philosophy turned on its head, there a Delphic epiphany or passage of advanced technobabble. What on earth are we to make of "withering emoticons of heteroflexible tweens"?

But then Liam - Aldo's unwanted amanuensis and our narrator throughout this deafening Niagara of a book - is almost as bad. "Despite your singular fate, to write about you is to troubleshoot the human spirit," he pronounces. Oh, dear. Together (in a scuzzy Aussie beachside bar) they make an unlikely double act, and as early as page four I found myself looking at the following 400 with misgivings.

But Toltz, whose widely praised debut, A Fraction of the Whole, was shortlisted for the 2008 Booker prize, probably didn't get where he is today by worrying about dialogue that sounds like a deranged brainiac reading it aloud through a megaphone. And when I wasn't shouting at the book to just shut up, I was laughing my fool head off.

Most of the story - swaggering, cerebral, capriciously inventive - comes in flashbacks: Aldo's unhinged extended family, his ruinous business enterprises; his tragic love life; the erroneous charges against him for rape and murder and wasting police time. Aldo is plagued by life-threatening occurrences, a magnet to misfortune, a walking nightmare.

There's little emotional pull. Toltz is a master at reproducing the outpourings of a madman, less so at having us share his pain. The drama is too busy for that, undercut as it is by black humour and booby-trapped with surprises, laced with poem-y interludes and driven by the hurricane pace of events, bowling us gaily along.

The prose could do with a bit of weeding. Toltz is an inspired phrase-maker, but is prone to common writer's tics. But there's brilliance enough here to outshine the pedantic quibbles. Enough to keep you going to the last page.

Quicksand by Steve Toltz (Sceptre)

The Guardian