Maurice Swift took a notebook from his bag… and began to make some notes.
“What?” asked Erich, “Did I say something particularly wise?”
“I’m writing something down about balance. You seem to have struck a good equilibrium between your work life and your artistic life,” said Maurice.
“You can’t write all the time, Maurice. There’s more to life than words and stories.”
“Not for me there isn’t,” says Maurice.
And believe me, this diabolical sociopath really means it.
In 2018, I was granted an advance copy of a reprint of John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky. I have always enjoyed his works including the 2006 young adult book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the wonderful 2017 novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. But somehow this book became buried in my TBR stack. Now that I have read A Ladder to the Sky, I could kick myself for waiting so long to read and review it.
Truth be known, I can’t remember when I intensely disliked a protagonist more than Maurice Swift. I found myself hissing and booing but totally unable to put the book down. We have all met people that are manipulative and taken advantage of us. They have the uncanny ability to upset our resolves and get us to reveal our deepest insecurities or darkest secrets. Sometimes they seem to enjoy causing pain or harm to us for no reason other than they can do it.
Maurice Swift has always wanted to be a writer. And not just any writer. The best of the best. Someone that history will remember as a literary great and whose books will never go out of print. But he has one problem. He can put together the words on paper but he is incapable of generating the original idea; he lacks imagination.
Maurice is well aware of his assets. He was gifted at birth with a Hollywood attractiveness that he used to his best advantage throughout his life. He was also born an undiagnosed sociopath with a innate ability for furthering his long-term goals with charismatic charm, flattery, and deceitful behavior. His early books rejected or published with little success didn’t deter his goal. He just had to find someone with a story and steal it.
The novel offers three views into Swift’s life. The first begins as a novella of an aging German-American novelist. There’s a melancholy edge to his story. Narrated in the first person, Erich Ackermann speaks to us about his childhood, his literary career development and his modest successes. The narrative darkens as he relates meeting a sexy barkeeper who tells Erich that he hopes to become a successful author himself one day. Like a frog placed in a pan of tepid water on the stove, Erich doesn’t sense the danger until he is sucked into Maurice’s dangerous web and is unable to extricate himself. It is too late when he is tricked into sharing a dark secret from his own youth in Nazi Germany. Erich’s worst nightmare from the the past is exposed in Swift’s highly successful fiction entitled, Two Germans.
The second part of the book, to me, was the most interesting. Maurice Swift, accompanying his latest victim, American author, Dash Hardy, unexpectedly met the renowned Gore Vidal at his home in Italian villa, The Swallow’s Nest. This serendipitous encounter exposed Swift’s wiles as he tried to vandalism Vidal’s life and ingratiate himself into his social community; if successful there would be no need to squander his unproductive time with Dash. The world-wise Vidal recognized Maurice’s tactics. The acerbic literary elder sparred with Swift and privately let him know that wasn’t blind to the young man’s game; he couldn’t out-master the master.
Dash, poor defenseless Dash, was obviously besotted. . . Gore lamented quietly, his heart grieving for the pain that this young man would inevitably cause his friend.
The third part of the novel begins with Swift, now recognized for his successful fiction, Two Germans, celebrating his fifth wedding anniversary with his wife, Edith. After five years, Maurice hasn’t achieved the second of his two life ambitions -becoming a father. Edith has been unable to produce a child having suffered four miscarriages.
To add insult to injury in Maurice’s mind, Edith, also an author, has recently published her first novel, Fear, to rave reviews. It has been eleven years since Maurice published Two Germans and he is beginning to be perceived as a has-been. When Edith announces that she has begun a second novel, the wheels come off the bus.
In the end, Maurice Swift earns his just reward, landing in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell after a lifetime of treachery.
I rarely give a book 5 stars. Giving a book a perfect score usually requires me to be transported to a different place and/or time. There were flaws in this book, but I have found myself reflecting on many aspects long after I finished reading it. Why did his mentors, sensing his disloyalty, turn into simpering snivelers grasping at his ankles as he pulled away. But of more import to me revolved around the question -where do ideas for a book come from? When is it right or wrong to use something overheard or told by someone? And does anyone understand why a narcissistic sociopath would set being a father as a life ambition? Humm.