The Secret Life of Sam Holloway
- By Rhys Thomas
- Park Row
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Drew Gallagher
- August 30, 2020
A kind-hearted “superhero” tries mightily to slip the surly bonds of earth.
There’s an inherent difficulty in reviewing a novel as nuanced as Rhys Thomas’ The Secret Life of Sam Holloway because the purpose of a critique is to inform readers of the book’s relative worth without giving away too much of the plot and thus spoiling the magic within.
I will, however, reveal one thing: This novel is exceptional. But being so succinct does Thomas’ publisher no favors, so let me try for something heftier: The Secret Life of Sam Holloway swims to depths of grief unspoken, soars to heights of majesty rarely captured so fully in a novel, and leaps tall buildings in a single bound.
Well, the titular protagonist never actually tries to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and he isn’t as much a fan of Superman as he is of other comics. But Sam does want to be a superhero. (And he does, in fact, leap off a building rather than over it, but I digress.)
Sam not only wants to be a superhero; he needs to be a superhero to escape a crushing past and a life he feels holds no future.
Only as his alter ego, the Phantasm, does he believe he can find purpose. Alas, he’s not a very good superhero. He’s certainly well intentioned, but he has no superpowers, and his arsenal of 10-cent smoke bombs fails to deter the modern criminal. He’s Don Quixote with no Sancho Panza by his side, tilting at spray-paint-wielding teenage vandals rather than at windmills.
But when the costume is tucked away in his near-empty house after a night of crusading, the loneliness creeps back in and sends Sam to the internet. Superheroes are not immune to social media, even if it is kryptonite to the soul:
“Facebook late at night put in him a catastrophic form of loneliness, staring at the lives being lived out there, those dutifully filed online for people like Sam to marvel over — days out with babies in country parks, the selection of wedding venues, ice cream sundaes in nice-looking restaurants, arm in arm with a lover before the Eiffel Tower.
“His friends lambasted social media, citing invasion of privacy, tax evasion, the addicting properties of the internet, the unmitigated disasters of the echo chamber, but they all used it. Sam knew it wasn’t good, that something deeply sinister and depressing was at play beneath the pixels, but its pull was enormously strong, way too strong for him to resist.”
Sam does have friends who occasionally drag him out to the pub or an up-all-night stargazing adventure. And he’s a highly productive employee of the England-based office of a Japanese company, although there’s not a lot of affirmation in his efforts.
It’s not until he meets Sarah that Sam starts to consider a life with something more to offer. A real life — not the one played out in a costume with a large “P” on his chest. (He designed the emblem himself.)
Author Rhys Thomas does a pretty good job of plucking heartstrings like he’s playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and, in doing so, builds up an enormous reservoir of sympathy for poor Sam. The reader wants Sam to experience a modicum of happiness, and if running around dark streets and delivering meals to a homeless shelter gives him joy, then the Phantasm must live to fight another day.
Unfortunately, the police feel differently and remind Sam that vigilantism is illegal. And in case the reminder is not enough to underscore his exercises in futility, when Sam wakes up most mornings after a night of crusading, he has bruises and cuts to show that being a real-life superhero is vastly different than being a comic-book one.
When Sarah enters into the closed world of this conflicted man, a future seems possible, but love is seldom easy, and she has a past of her own that she hides from Sam. The novel’s momentum picks up as the hurdles to this seemingly perfect coupling increase and begin to appear, as they must, to be insurmountable.
Sam Holloway is a flawed human being trying to survive and maybe, just maybe, make the world a better place. He might not be a superhero, but he is heroic.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia.