By Charles Elton
Imagine sharing your name with the main character in a series of children's books written by your father. Now imagine being his sister, who isn't in the books. These dilemmas are the crux of Charles Elton's darkly comic, heartachingly marvelous Mr. Toppit.
Mr. Toppit is the character in the Hayseed Chronicles who is never seen, but who often compels young Luke Hayseed to undertake all sorts of adventures and tests of courage. At the end of the last book, Mr. Toppit emerges from the woods behind Luke's home. But that is all anyone knows of him, for Luke's father, Arthur Haymon, doesn't write any more books. They were never big sellers.
But then Arthur dies, struck in the road after visiting his publisher. As he lays dying, American tourist Laurie Clow tries to comfort him. Frustrated child of a mother with Alzheimer's and performing a dead-end hospital radio job, Laurie latches onto Arthur as if he was her lifesaver. Whch is just what he becomes.
Laurie, after worming her way into the Haymon family home as easily as she hopped onto Arthur's ambulance, goes back to Modesto, reads the Hayseed Chronicles over the hospital radio airwaves, and a star is born. She ends up with an Oprah-like TV program while Arthur's books take off in popularity akin to, well, you know who.
The real Luke is not the publicity hound many want him to be when the books take off in popularity. There is much of the "no thanks, I'm English" about him, and while he is not driven in any particular direction, neither does he want to be driven by others. His experience has been that the things he does try to do end up being twisted. Things that happened to him were rearranged by his father in the books, and no one believes the truth. They would rather believe he is Luke Hayseed. His sister, Rachel, Luke realizes, is worse off. She has the Hayseed legacy as well, but she does not exist in the books.
The stories of these three characters are the focus of Elton's strong debut novel. It's easy at times to despise Laurie, while at others sympathy is earned. She's part monster, part hapless wannabe important person. Like the other main characters, she is never completely in control of her life. Luke remains a cipher, perhaps on purpose, as other characters try to imprint their version of the fictional Luke onto him. Rachel veers between trying to make something of the Hayseed legacy and trying to shed its power over her. She is fragile yet fiercely alive.
Elton often uses dark humor to show how ridiculous it can be to have such a legacy over one's head. Arthur's funeral and the reception following, for example, are brilliant in sharply skewering society. The contrast between Luke's England and Laurie's America also offers dark humor opportunities that are used well and not overdone. Many of the secondary characters are surely descendants of those created by Dickens and Austen.
Much of the power in Elton's novel comes from his ability to show the abundant contrasts in life. Luke Haymon isn't Luke Hayseed. Laurie Clow is not a member of the family but successfully makes herself important to them in a way that an older would-be helper does not. Arthur is not successful while alive but makes pots of money as a dead author. Luke and Rachel's mother gave up working on her PhD to work for the man who worked with Arthur, but she never shows any wisdom. In the books, the woods are the dark place while the Hayseed house is in the light. In real life, the house is shunned by the children while they seek the woods as a place of play and solace.
All the contrasts, characters and happenings work together in examining who do books belong to after they are written, particularly if they are beloved books. And what choice to some people have when their legacy threatens to overshadow anything they may accomplish on their own? Elton allows readers to draw their own conclusions.
© 2010 All Rights Reserved Reviews at CompuServe Books and reprinted with permission