Mad relatives, Englishmen and tenderness

Review Novel

September 17, 2006|By Heller McAlpin | Heller McAlpin,Los Angeles Times

A Spot of Bother: A Novel

Mark Haddon

Doubleday / 354 pages / $24.95

Second novels are notoriously difficult. If an author's first book sank without a trace, there's pressure to make a splash this time around. Perhaps worse, if the first was a hit, there's hideous pressure to do it again, or top it.

Mark Haddon's first novel is a hard act to follow. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, published in 2003, was an utterly unusual, pitch-perfect, moving murder mystery about how grown-ups' messy lives hurt those most vulnerable - their children. The book showcased Haddon's uncanny ability to fully inhabit his young autistic narrator's point of view.

Wisely, Haddon hasn't tried to outdo himself. A Spot of Bother concerns a middle-class British family's tragicomic attempts to cope with the unruly complexity of adult relationships as the family grapples with the daughter's possibly ill-advised second marriage. Haddon writes from the alternating third-person perspectives of four family members - George and Jean Hall and their grown children, Katie and Jamie - though he works his narrative magic best when zeroing in on the "mental wobbles" of the family patriarch. Although not as startlingly original as his lauded debut, A Spot of Bother snaps, crackles and pops with humor and pathos as Haddon depicts family members driving one another crazy.

Mild-mannered George has every expectation, in his early 60s, of enjoying a mellow retirement as a painter in the new studio he is building in his backyard. Then his life starts to unravel. First he discovers a sinister, scaly patch on his hip - a literal "spot of bother" - that he's grimly certain is cancer even though his doctor dismisses it as eczema. Then his daughter, Katie, announces her engagement to the somewhat oafish Ray. This prompts worries that his gay son, Jamie, will want to bring his lover to the wedding. But all this pales beside discovering firsthand that his wife is having an affair with an unbearably smooth former colleague.

As George's anxieties multiply, he is sucked into the warped logic of the panicked. Ordinarily, "[t]alking was, in George's opinion, over-rated. ... The secret of contentment, George felt, lay in ignoring many things completely." Yet to ignore his rising panic, he has to anesthetize himself with alcohol, codeine and Valium - or kill himself.

"You could say all you liked about reason and logic and common sense and imagination, but when the chips were down the one skill you needed was the ability to think about absolutely nothing whatsoever," George reflects. It's a skill that eludes him. He considers several alternatives, and in one of several darkly comic scenes, he decides to take matters into his own hands, hacking off the troublesome patch of skin with a pair of scissors.

Meanwhile, Katie, a tough, smart, "stroppy" divorcee, tries to figure out whether she actually loves the hulking Ray, or just his ability to provide for her and her son. (A problem is that Ray never seems as unappealing as the Halls make him out to be: He's unfailingly sweet, tolerant and sensible - what's not to like?) Jamie, a real estate agent, alienates his boyfriend by not wanting him at the wedding, where bigoted relatives will tsk-tsk. He realizes belatedly the importance of unconditional love and "the smallness of your life when you took the props away." Jean frets over wedding plans and agonizes over the relative importance of her sexually fulfilling affair and her long, predictable marriage.

Much of the novel concerns preparations for Katie and Ray's on-again, off-again wedding. This provides a less compelling core structure than the who-killed-the-dog mystery at the heart of Haddon's previous novel. Weddings, unfortunately, are a lot like dreams: most interesting to the people having them.

Weddings are also like long car trips, with a tendency to amplify existing tensions. They both draw people together and drive them apart.

George's initial reaction to his daughter's engagement demonstrates Haddon's gift for infiltrating his characters' brains and following their often skewed logic to the comic payoff: "He would have to make a speech at the reception, a speech that said nice things about Ray. Jamie would refuse to come to the wedding. Jean would refuse to allow Jamie to refuse to come to the wedding. Ray was going to be a member of the family. They would see him all the time. Until they died. Or emigrated."

Although sparklingly written with short, punchy chapters, there is something familiarly sitcom-ish about the novel's antic humor. The Halls evoke a slightly better-educated, more upscale Edith and Archie Bunker. When, with great effort, George manages to confide that he's frightened of dying, Jean snaps unthinkingly, "That's absurd." They've got their routines down pat - or so they think, until things start to fall apart.

This being a British comedy, class snobbery, that ever-present serpent in English society, is an issue that both Katie and Jamie must overcome before they can reconcile themselves to their mates. More important, they must all learn to reconcile themselves to the shade of grass in their own pastures. Haddon deftly pulls this off with what we can now hail as his trademark tenderness.

Heller McAlpin wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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