Quicksand: A Novel

  • By Steve Toltz
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 368 pp.
  • Reviewed by Nathan Chadwick
  • October 27, 2015

Dark themes aside, this story about a hapless (and shiftless) protagonist is surprisingly funny.

Quicksand: A Novel

In Steve Toltz's inventive second novel, Quicksand (which follows his Booker Prize-nominated A Fraction of the Whole), we follow the tumultuous exploits of Aldo Benjamin. Aldo feels he has little to live for, yet he continues to push through life, searching for great things that might lie right around the corner.

He is a Job-like figure plagued by doomed romances and failed business ventures that typically either leave him hiding from creditors or in the hospital. Utterly hapless, he can’t even properly kill himself; his attempt leads only to a wheelchair.

Still, Aldo somehow maintains friendly connections; he knows at least one person from every major profession, which facilitates his escape from many (often self-imposed) jams. One such friend is our sometime narrator, Liam Wilder, a failed writer turned police officer. Liam values his friendship with Aldo, despite the possibility that Aldo simply uses him to get out of law-related binds.

Liam, for his part, sees Aldo as an amazing character — a charming schemer with more grand ideas than actual accomplishments. The novel centers on Liam's desire to get Aldo's story down on paper, but it’s how Aldo's story intersects with Liam's — and the resulting illustration of male bonds — that drives the narrative.

The most painful connection of Aldo's is with the love of his life, Stella. Some of the best passages in Quicksand are the ones describing his time with her; they reveal more about Aldo as a person than do any others. For instance, in one scene, Aldo — managing Stella’s burgeoning singing career — forces her to perform on stage soon after suffering a miscarriage. This despicable event defines Aldo for the rest of the novel as someone who possibly deserves everything that comes to him.

But despite the cynicism Aldo is constantly spouting and the bleak things that happen to him and those around him, the book is quite funny. Toltz has shown in both of his novels that he has a keen ability to find humor in the darkest of places. I constantly found myself having to read a sentence out loud to whichever lucky person was sitting nearby, just to share Toltz's wit. The only drawback to this is that the book sometimes falls into an unnatural series of one-liners rather than a normal cadence.

Toltz also writes with a vigorous imagination. As he switches between the perspectives of his two main characters, we’re given a variety of different storytelling techniques. In one chapter, we’re presented with Aldo's backstory as a biography that Liam is writing. In another, we’re offered a first-person account of Aldo's experiences via his court testimony told in back-and-forth dialogue that detours into poetry.

The novel begins with Aldo having a series of marvelous and somewhat comic observations as he sits at a bar. These include his current view of the world, such as, "You know how when people talk of First World problems they forget to mention Alzheimer's and dementia?" or "People are spooked that good and evil no longer struggle but work different shifts."

While it’s great fun to come along for the ride as Toltz examines the narrative form through varying techniques, it can sometimes be disjointed. The novel is at its best when it focuses on Liam's direct assessments of Aldo and reveals the men’s respect and affection for one another. This is where the book shines — when readers are made not to struggle against Aldo, but alongside him.

Nathan Chadwick is senior librarian at the Gaithersburg Library in Gaithersburg, MD.

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