Tumour Humour in "Failure to Thrive"
Failure to Thrive is the funny and often over-the-top debut novel of McGill alumnus Jeff Oliver, which was launched at this weekend's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Published by Montreal's very own DC Books, home to many titles by some of this city's current greats, I have a lot of faith that this will be the first of many for the Toronto-born writer.
Now a programming executive at the Food Network, it is hard to ignore the ties between Jeff Oliver and the novel's television-producer-main-character, Jonathan Farb. I'm always loath to associate an author's life with his work, but newly acquired fatherhood is mentioned in Oliver's acknowledgements and is also the central and most interesting theme in this energetic and sometimes almost dizzying story.
Farb's relationship with his son is one filled with the fear of failure and the plain panic of parenthood. In moments when the father is left alone with and responsible for his son, like when they have a trip to the doctor's office where "with the exception of only one near-death incident in which Farb discovered Elliot chewing on an electrical wire, things went off without a hitch," we are walking a fine line along with the characters. The way in which Oliver distils anxiety and mixes it with a 'we're all screwed anyway' sense of humour is both hilarious and terrifying.
Throughout the whole story, we follow Farb around as he skirts on the edge of disaster after finding out that he has a brain tumour on the same day as he discovers that his wife is cheating on him, which prompts his urgent need to instil values and words of wisdom in his five-month-old son.
Oliver plays impressive tricks on us by switching perspectives from one character to the other. Suddenly, I found myself thinking that a cuckold with a brain tumour, afraid that he will never get to know his son was a complete douche-wad (this may not be in Merriam-Webster, but it truly expresses the sentiment).
In the end, the true point at which the man on the page and the man with the proverbial pen in his hand diverge is at the level of realism. Oliver shows what I can only feel is a profound disdain for his characters, as they often become caricatures of themselves and all that they represent.
In true Jewish self-deprecating fashion, no one is spared the brunt of the author's satyr.
TV producers are the larger-than-life jerkoffs you'd expect them to be, parents won't be proud unless their children go to expensive schools and characters construct such intricate webs of deceit that, in the end, they are not smart enough not to get caught in them themselves. And yet, Oliver still somehow managed to make me care, to worry about the lives of fictional people, regardless of them having as much moral fibre as a bag of marshmallows.
I always find it difficult to read the tale of characters that even the author can't bring himself to like. But, in the end, by being forgiving to a few expected clichÃ©s and the mistakes that come with one's first swing at a novel, we're left with a story that made me deeply enjoy the ridiculousness of its characters full of sincere, stupid human instinct.
You can purchase a copy of Failure to Thrive on www.amazon.ca
Published by DC Books