Common civilian question to writers: “Where do you get your ideas?” Sort of like asking “Where do you get your next breath.” However, I’m on the verge of asking Anthony Neil Smith where he comes up with these protagonists and their sidekicks. Choke on your Lies features a guy who is just as incompetent as Billy Lafitte (see Writer Working on Hogdoggin’ and Yellow Medicine, August 15 and 17), but 180 degrees different.
Where Lafitte likes to punch, kick, shoot, fuck anything in his way, Mick Thooft is afraid to even approach his obstacles. He’d rather pretend he doesn’t really want to go where he’s headed or try to find a way around, or just give up. How can a writer expect a weak character like that to carry a whole book? Give him Octavia Vanderplaats, 350 pounds of brilliance and an unparalleled mixture of cruelty and love. Octavia likes to control people, but she is to our normal idea of a “control freak” what Al Capone is to a shoplifter. She not only steers peoples’ behavior her own way, she consumes them. If the Stockholm syndrome is named after a city, she’d need a nation to label the syndrome that she visits on folks under her spell. The only thing she and Mick seem to have in common is their Dutch names. But you know how those high school friendships can hang on over the years.
So when Mick’s wife tries to destroy him via divorce, Octavia wants to “punish the bitch” while Mick yearns for understanding, even reconciliation. Even while they uncover more and more of “Frannie’s” salacity and cruelty, he resists bringing down the hammer. In the meantime, Octavia, plows ahead without him, then drags him along after the deed is done. It’s a fascinating dynamic, having the protagonist trying to slow the action while his sidekick keeps the pedal the metal on every page.
Another thing. I have a prejudice against novels of academia. They’re mostly full of pompous know-nothings with latte’s instead of blood in their veins. Even my favorite, Robertson Davies, suffers from the syndrome. I don’t doubt that Smith intended the Yeats-quoting Thooft (nothing against Yeats, the juice and soul of 20th century poetry. Love him. But not the way Mick misuses him.) as a satire of that set of pretentious idiots. I thank Smith for that and for another docnoir triumph. I’m not sure whether to thank him for the relatively neat, wrapped up ending. I’m still waiting for the return of Billy Lafitte.