Monday, 8 March 2021

Twenty-one in '21: All My Colors

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

2/21: All My Colors by David Quantick

The blurb: From Emmy-award winning author David Quantick, All My Colors is a darkly comic novel about a man who remembers a book that may not exist, with dire consequences. A bizarre, mind-bending story at the intersection of Richard Bachman, Charlie Kaufman and Franz Kafka.

It is March 1979 in DeKalb Illinois. Todd Milstead is a wannabe writer, a serial adulterer, and a jerk, only tolerated by his friends because he throws the best parties with the best booze. During one particular party, Todd is showing off his perfect recall, quoting poetry and literature word for word plucked from his eidetic memory. When he begins quoting from a book no one else seems to know, a novel called All My Colors, Todd is incredulous. He can quote it from cover to cover and yet it doesn’t seem to exist.

With a looming divorce and mounting financial worries, Todd finally tries to write a novel, with the vague idea of making money from his talent. The only problem is he can’t write. But the book – All My Colors – is there in his head. Todd makes a decision: he will “write” this book that nobody but him can remember. After all, if nobody’s heard of it, how can he get into trouble?

As the dire consequences of his actions come home to both Todd and his long-suffering friends, it becomes clear that there is a high – and painful – price to pay for his crime.

The review: This caught me completely on the hop.

Like you, I was familiar with David Quantick largely from his music journalism - he started out with the NME before graduating as reviewer gun-for-hire with Q and Word, to name but two. I was less aware that he wrote comedy for television too, but he has an impressive list of credits there (Spitting Image, The Day Today, Brass Eye, The Thick Of It and TV Burp, to name but a few). But I bought this book on the strength of his music writing, which I always enjoyed, and the intriguing premise, above. And, despite the slightly fantastical nature of that premise, I was expecting either a suspense or a comedy, based on that "how can he get into trouble?" But I should have paid more attention to the blurb. For whilst this is certainly suspenseful, and there is plenty of humour too, the real thrust of this novel is best described in that first line: "the intersection of Richard Bachman, Charlie Kaufman and Franz Kafka." This story has a dark underbelly, an uncanny nature that is not to be found, I'm guessing, in the on-the-face-of-it-similar Richard Curtis film Yesterday. Telling, also, that the publishers reference Richard Bachman in the blurb, rather than Stephen King; they're trying to appeal to genre aficianados. They want readers who are in the know.

It's a good touchstone for this book, especially given that it concerns a writer, his troubles writing, the dark side of the craft. That's a common King trope, as you probably know. Here, Quantick (who himself has written two non-fiction books on being a writer) picks up this theme and really runs with it. This is King material, but King if he'd grown up in Plymouth instead of Maine. And (I say this as a huge King fan) it's King if he was more focused, less prone to over-writing, sharper in the denouement. In short, it's bloody good.

Quantick's dry humour runs throughout the prose, and is especially effective when applied to our (anti-) hero Milstead and Behm, the private investigator he hires (brilliantly, concisely, vividly characterised, by the way). It's an essential element to the storytelling too, the smiles such writing can prompt, as it helps to balance out the darkness... and there is plenty of darkness. Adultery, dependence, mental health issues, death and, let's stop beating about the bush, something both sinister and supernatural going on beyond our protagonist's control... it's all here.

And it's all so readable; I honestly can't remember the last time I read a full novel in less than 24 hours but that's what happened with All My Colors. It's a terrible old cliché, I know, but I really couldn't put it down.

What else? Well, what a reader likes and dislikes in a writer's style is, of course, subjective, but you'll recall from my last review, of Simon Mayo's Knife Edge, that I found some stylistic issues, authorial habits that grated. Well, there are none here at all. It is an utter joy to read, an intriguing premise so satisfyingly realised. It's the sort of book I wish I'd written myself, that's how much I enjoyed it.

The bottom line: dark in tone and humour, this is an impossible-to-put-down tale straight from the Twilight Zone, all wrapped up in perfect late-70s period detail. Very highly recommended.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★★

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