Here Goes Nothing: A Novel
- By Steve Toltz
- Melville House
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Edgar Farr Russell III
- August 1, 2022
(The after) life is beautiful…or not.
A grinning skeleton with its finger pointed in warning appears on the cover of Here Goes Nothing, the latest novel from Booker-shortlisted author Steve Toltz. Or maybe the finger serves to direct unwary audiences toward the start of the unique adventure to come. In either case, Toltz has the reader nodding in agreement even before chapter one begins.
Postulates the hero of this story, Angus Mooney: Who hasn’t “made life choices to avoid the disapproval of those who hadn’t even noticed [them] standing there…”? Mooney, as he is called, will narrate his extraordinary journey from insecure childhood to dissipated youth, from a precious few happy years of adulthood to a most unexpected and unwanted afterlife.
The book’s title is a cliché most everyone has uttered. Yet, as the story progresses, it will turn out to be apt. Indeed, early on, when one of young Mooney’s four foster mothers introduces another cliché — “There is nothing in the dark that wasn’t there in the light” — a “Twilight Zone” fan will all but hear Rod Serling narrating. Perhaps the novel’s banal utterances secretly serve to reinforce that readers are actually in for something quite bizarre but extremely special.
Toltz creates several richly eccentric characters, including Mooney’s future wife, Gracie, who, at a wedding, feels compelled to speak truths via harangues ostensibly designed to break up the newlyweds:
“Your life together will be defined by accidents, arguments, unexpected windfalls and poor decisions. I promise you…But listen up, you guys, don’t kid yourself about this union’s infinite duration. Marital bliss can be revoked by either party. Once the romance fades, worthy substitutes abound. Think of it this way: a wedding is like a tetanus shot. Later, when a wound is infected, you’ll discover the immunization was only good for five years.”
Strangely, this particular couple and others — if not their angry relatives — thrive on Gracie’s harsh words, making her much in demand at weddings (which Gracie herself then obsessively documents online, gaining her thousands of followers in the process).
The third major character is Owen Fogel, a “short, balding man in his late sixties, owlish with thick eyebrows.” Toltz is expert in describing all of his folks in a way that attracts the reader to them — even when the normal reaction should be to run away. Owen asks Gracie for permission (which she grants) to enter and look around the home he once lived in. He is a dying man, and it’s he who propels the supernatural journey Mooney will soon take.
As accomplished as Toltz is in describing people, places, and situations, one could nonetheless be tempted to plead exhaustion from the many dizzyingly long, descriptive lists he makes readers navigate. One such list is provided by Gracie to convince Mooney there’s more to heaven and earth than he can imagine: e.g., “ghost trains, past life regression, phantom hitchhikers, after-death communications, and bi-locations.”
But even if the reader does become weary at times, Toltz is ready to insert frequent gut punches of raw truth, such as when Gracie demands that the parents adopting a child stand in front of her:
“She slapped the father’s face, then the mother’s face, got them both to admit their worthlessness as parents in training, and when they cried, she applied their tears to the baby’s forehead. ‘Tears and laughter are the only common language between all people on earth.’”
A further authorial boxing blow of reality: At one point, Mooney tells Gracie, “I also believed that life was meaningless but not worthless, and how that distinction had been enough to get me out of bed in the morning...And if everything happens for a reason, those reasons are chance, luck and chaos.”
Are “chance, luck and chaos” merely an expression of cynicism? Not really. Toltz begins all eight parts of his novel with a quote. Part five features one from Italian novelist and poet Cesare Pavese. A curious reader searching the internet will discover that the real-life Pavese kills himself after a failed love affair with American model/actress Constance Dowling. Five years later, Dowling marries Hungarian screenwriter/producer Ivan Tors. In the mid-1960s, Tors creates a beloved hit television show, “Flipper.”
It looks like chance, luck, and chaos played their parts.
For more details of what happens, to whom it happens, and why it happens, you’ll need to pick up a copy of Here Goes Nothing for yourself. You may laugh or weep and be shocked or outraged, but you won’t be bored. You may even develop a greater understanding of human nature — even as it plays out in the hereafter.
Edgar Farr Russell III is a fine artist, writer, director, and performer. His art was selected for the Joslyn Art Museum's Biennial XX. His plays have been produced for NPR, the stage, and television. Russell produced and reconstructed the lost 1938 Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre On the Air production of Julius Caesar. This new presentation featured members of Welles’ original Broadway cast. Russell has performed at the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center. A lifelong enthusiast of Abraham Lincoln, he served as president of the Lincoln Group of DC, as well as president of the Washington, DC, chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters. His most recent poem was published in November as part of the anthology We Were Not Alone, which features a foreword by singer/songwriter Jewel.