Charlie Big Potatoes by Phil Robinson

by James Oliphant

16 October 2003


Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.
— Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

I am to review this book, this novel by London writer Phil Robinson, but I can’t concentrate. It’s as if grubworms are using my brain for dinner, digging into my cerebral cortex, scrambling my thoughts like a Tilt-A-Whirl at a small town carnival on Saturday night. My eyes flash around just like the kid who sat behind you in second grade, the one so hyped up on Ritalin that he looked like a GI taking point at Khe Sanh. My desk smells of coffee, cream and dairy fats, coagulating into a noxious brew that brings me close to vomiting. I want to call my mates on the phone. I want a drink. I want to get away from here. Instead, my focus, such as it is, returns repeatedly to an early inside page of the book, before the narrative even begins, to that page, you know, that page that lists all the disclaimers and the Library of Congress information. It wasn’t until I moved to Washington that I discovered that the Library of Congress was a real place, that it wasn’t some virtual computer creation, or some dusty office filled with index cards. They have books there. Real ones. One night, I remember, it was June, I think, and three friends of mine, Dustin, Drew and Tate, we slipped into a corner of the building in the middle of the night, slinking past the security guards like the Pink Panther. I was spinning, tripping on an unholy combination of mescaline, sodium hydroxide, banana nut bread and WD-40. I blacked out and then awakened the next morning in a trash dumpster along the Potomac River.

cover art

Charlie Big Potatoes

Phil Robinson

(Regan Books)

So, this page, I keep locking onto it, obsessed with it, just like that David Letterman stalker. Except, you know, I can’t break into its house. It doesn’t have a house. But it has words. These are the Library of Congress’ categories for Charlie Big Potatoes:

Drug Abuse—Fiction

As I read the novel, these four items repeat over and over again in my head, like highway construction information at the end of the AM dial or a Beyoncé song. Journalists. Drug Abuse. Alcoholics. Weddings. It occurs to me that maybe we’re the same person, this Charlie Big Potatoes and I. You see, Charlie Marshall, the narrator of the story, is a drug- addled, alcoholic London journalist who passes out on the day of his wedding after an extended partying binge in New York. Me, I’m a journalist who occasionally has kept the three a.m. lamplight burning – and I just got married. Charlie, however, seems a bit more worse for wear. His experience of fainting in front of his fiancée, Sarah, drives him into a dark pit of despair and, eventually, in-patient rehab.

Charlie is the kind of guy, as written by Robinson, who mopes and moans and heads into every situation kicking and screaming, with wit and metaphors always at the ready. He seems to spend the majority of the novel in a psychological fetal position. He sounds like this:

I had a moment of clarity, the kind geniuses have on TV when they solve a big problems scrawled across a blackboard, where every point of the mind joins instantaneously, and a bolt of lightning fires along an exact synaptic route from ear to ear and you say “Bingo.” I am slapped sideways by my own brain and before I know it I’m dressed in a wedding suit, wearing a fine pair of Cutler and Gross sunglasses, and slamming the door behind me—and I’m not frightened this time. I’m churning up the road, and I mean truckin’. I’m unstoppable, the pavement’s disappearing under my feet. I’m thinking I can walk like this forever, walk all the way.

That’s the inside of Charlie’s head and you, dear reader, spend a lot of time there. Not small-time time. But the kind of time that’s measured in revolutions of the Earth – or maybe even Jupiter. That’s okay with me, though, ‘cause Charlie and I, we think the same way—mainly in extremely long sentences. Our problems take on operatic proportions. I must warn you that this stream of Charlieness does become a bit claustrophobic at times, in real David Blaine fashion. The difference, I suppose, between Charlie and me is that I never went into rehab, never spent my days in therapy groups with Severe-Looking Girls and suicidal skin cutters named Constance. Never had a mother who was trying to replace her husband with her boarder. Never had a friend run off with my girl. (At least as far as I know.) I also never had moments, in which, in the midst of drinking with my friends, I stood up from a table and announced “I have to live for now, whatever that means.” That seems a little showy from my perspective, like wearing an Armani to a high school reunion. But Charlie Big Potatoes appears to fear we might miss the message: You don’t need chemicals to have a good time. In that way, despite Robinson’s deftness of touch and sharpness of wit, the novel sometimes resembles M.A.D.D. filmstrip day or a Very Special edition of Maxim, in which the drinking and whoring bounder finds religion while still looking snazzy and keeping his cellphone on vibrate. He ends up putting the narc in narcissistic.

Hey, I can respect that. Charlie gets his act together, so much so that there’s an ending so happy, I thought I was re-reading High Fidelity. (Love your work, Nick, by the way; I’m just a bit more fatalistic than all that.). Suppose we have to blame Jay McInerney for all this, these first-person accounts of young lives gone to seed amidst the glam and glitz of the now. Charlie at least finds himself. The narrator in Bright Lights Big City, he just gets a loaf of bread. Oh, It’s his soul. Right. I forgot. Charlie’s on a journey of self-discovery, and that can take a long time, like waiting in a dry cleaners on a Friday afternoon. You’re with him every twelve steps of the way. Whether you like or not.

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