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Childhood's end

<strong>Mr Toppit</strong>

Charles Elton

<em>Viking, 352pp, £12.99</em>

Mr Toppit, a first novel by Charles Elton, begins with a huge piece of misdirection. The narrator is Luke Hayman, whose father Arthur wrote a series of children's books called The Hayseed Chronicles that went on to sell millions of copies after the death of their author when Luke was 13. In the present day, Luke is still dealing with the consequences of the books' main character being named after him, though by now he is used to being "accosted by complete strangers in restaurants or pinned up against walls during cocktail parties by people telling me how I ruined their childhood or - much, much worse - how I had been an inspiration to them".

Things are worse for his sister Rachel, who has no presence in the Chronicles but tries to make a place for herself by writing a biography of her father and working at the publishing house that brings out the books. As the novel opens, she is in rehab yet again and by now Luke takes her retreat from the world as the normal way of things:

The state she was in now was the good bit . . . Surround her with familiar things - straitjacket here under the Hayseed duvet and pillowcase, blast the excruciating "Luke's Theme" down stereo headphones into her ears, force-feed her through a tube from the Hayseed cereal bowl and mug combo - and you probably couldn't kick-start her to save your life. Put her on a spaceship, people it with beings from a different solar system who speak no known language, and you might have a chance.

Luke's tone in the opening chapter combines bossy heartlessness with a tendency to overdo the detail and although it seems similar at first to John Lanchester's Debt to Pleasure or Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal Luke is, disappointingly, a much nicer character than the sniping sociopaths in charge of those novels. In another let-down for the reader, the plot of Mr Toppit (the novel is named after the Hayseed villain) lacks momentum. This is in part due to its author's desire to make his characters sympathetic over making them serve a plot. Instead of the adult Luke briskly marching us through the effects of the fame of his father's books and the details of Rachel's breakdown, he goes back to the past after the first chapter. The rest of the book is seen from the point of view of Luke, Rachel, their mother, Martha, and an overweight Californian called Laurie who sees Arthur Hayman being run over, barges her way into his family and is responsible for founding the Hayseed cult once she is back home.

The further you read, the less elegant the shifting point of view becomes, especially as everything we learn is still channelled, somehow, through Luke. Elton is aware of the problem; after a section devoted to Laurie, he has Luke say: "Other people's pasts just aren't that interesting, so I've cut it down a lot to give the flavour." But when another Laurie-centred section ends with Luke commenting, "There's not really a coherent narrative, but over the years I pieced it together," the author seems to be sending out a distress signal (Wanted: a more omniscient narrator).

All the main characters, and most of the minor ones, have a mystery in their past. Methodically, Mr Toppit gets to the heart of each one. In most cases, Luke is the recipient of a stray confidence and, although he sometimes understands the significance of what he learns, Elton often lets the reader put things together instead. Both methods have the same unfortunate effect, which is to make everyone except Luke seem like a problem to be solved and put out of the way so that we can get back to the main character. Once we do, however, the novel's greatest surprise and biggest let-down is that, compared to everyone else he is related to or knows, Luke is fine. There is every chance that after the shock ending which, too suddenly, provides us with the only forward, present action, he won't be . . . but, strangely, that is not the story Elton wants to tell.

The highlights of Mr Toppit are the all-too-brief episodes set in the British film industry and publishing - worlds that Elton knows well and gently makes fun of. A less genial and more ruthless approach to the rest of his subject matter would have made for a more satisfying novel.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009