[18 June 2010]
Rik Suntan has it made: a small-time pub singer in a minor British city, whose girlfriend only occasionally throws him out of the house and a zealously unshakable belief in his own musical ability. Rik regularly performs in front of dozens of fans on weekends while his dodgy manager Ted tries to arrange deals for marginally better exposure… Okay wait, maybe Rik Suntan doesn’t have it made, exactly. He’s on his way, though, right? It’s just a matter of time. How can talent like his, not to mention a full repertoire of Cliff Richards songs, remain ignored for long?
Charles Williams’ wickedly funny Stairway to Hell neatly skewers every facet of pop-idol wannabe-ism in the course of its opening chapters: the delusional self-belief, the “keep it positive” mindset, the contempt for other singers, but that’s just the beginning. Unabashed self-promotion rolls off Rik’s tongue, notwithstanding copious evidence to the contrary: “People tend to like me, not have a problem with me”. However, the reader quicky catches on that Rick’s subjective reality might be somewhat different from the objective truth of his situation.
Trouble is, what’s passing for objective truth ain’t so reliable, either. This is especially true once Mr. Marino shows up, a representative of the big time who’s ready to sign Rik to a better deal than he’s ever seen in his life, even as Ted the manager starts talking about displaced souls, ‘70s rock stars and black magic. It seems one rock star in particular lost track of his soul when it got itself displaced into Rik’s body way back when, and now Rik is in mortal danger, and the soul has to get back to its proper time, and Mr Marino from the big time means nothing but trouble of the eternal and everlasting sort. Suddenly Rik’s brand of small-time self-delusion doesn’t seem so bad, does it?
It’s not just rock stars involved with this either. According to Ted, other savory characters like bank robbers and boxers managed to get mixed up in the, uh, let’s call them “experiments”. Ted’s a little foggy on the details (to be honest, he’s a little foggy in general) but he thinks it had something to do with Jimmy Page. Yeah, that Jimmy Page. Also the Devil, although maybe not. It was all quite a while ago, to tell the truth. There’s also a dwarf named Eggy, a bouncer named Martin and several hundred flies.
This novel works wonderfully well on multiple levels. First, there’s Rik himself, a man who is able to straight-facedly say things like, “I was someone who liked to remain cool and calm in his dealings. Emotion was for my music, and I didn’t want to waste it elsewhere.” Later, reflecting on what sets apart people like himself and Michael Jackson from the common run of humanity, he muses that “a member of the herd doesn’t achieve massive success and global fame. It’s only a special person who can do that, one who has conversations with chimpanzees… That was me.”
On top of this is an overriding, breezy sense of what-the-hell-is-going-on, a result of the contorted plot and even more twisted explanations of same. This is one of those rare books when, really, anything might happen in the next few pages. Rather than feeling contrived, Williams manages to create a milieu in which even the wackiest developments are both seamlessly logical and thoroughly unexpected, not to mention funny. Pop music, time travel, soul displacement? You bet! Sure, it helps to have a smattering of pop-culture knowledge from the ‘70s. Anyone utterly lacking in that is likely to miss a good amount of the humor. Even so, there are other flavors to be enjoyed here: ultimately, the novel is about modern times as much as, or more than, the past.
Events grow wilder as Rik finds himself immersed deeper in the situation, even if he’s not entirely sure what that situation is. As he careens out of control, to the point where things go from ludicrous to dire, Rik waffles between desperation and cockiness. He makes a decision that shows remarkably bad judgment, and then another one, and then a few more. Really, though, at this point it’s hard to be surprised. What does surprise are the curveballs that the author keeps throwing—remember, this is a book in which anything can happen, and an awful lot does.
British authors seems more adept at comic writing than their American counterparts. From Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim to Martin Amis’ Money, from A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd to last year’s Me Cheeta by James Lever, not to mention Jeeves and Wooster, the British sensibility is somehow able to combine hilariously pitch-perfect voice with serious, sometimes even somber, material. Stairway to Hell is far from somber, but it is another fine example of the craft of comic novel-writing. Enjoy it—just watch out for your soul.