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John Toomey: his largely unadorned prose generates an ebb and flow of motive and agency, love and horror, evasion and absorption

Slipping review: a novel take on murder

There’s nothing generic about John Toomey’s story of a teacher who kills his wife

For years Albert Jackson has been letting things slip. Not only has the world, consisting solely of his school-teaching career and domesticity with his wife, Val, been passing him by, but Albert has also been resisting its claims on him, withdrawing behind “the Lucite coating of my secluded mind”, as he puts it, and occasionally experiencing fleeting, Walter Mitty-like fantasies of greatness to compensate for his well-worn, risk-free suburban round.

The 49-year-old could do with a change. But he seems capable only of making the hole he has dug for himself bigger, as demonstrated by his botched attempt to bury Val’s body after he’s murdered her.

Now confined to a local asylum, the Reil Institute, under the unblinking professional eye of the stony Dr Novak, Albert wants to be restored to the world. He thinks the best way to do this is by making the confession he is writing the basis for a novel, believing that only a novel is capable of “shifting and rolling with the fluctuations of the human heart”. This belief he confides in Charlie Vaughan, a young writer to whom he entrusts the task of transformation.

The murder is obviously the definitive event in Albert’s life, but the fictional rendering of it will overshadow the act itself. Once completed, the story of the murder will probe the penumbra of motive, contexts and other intangibles that often slip through the cracks when an outrageous and gratuitous violation such as Albert’s takes place. Fictionalising the event will arrest such slippage while furnishing a sense of its qualities, characteristics and multiplicity.

In a literal sense Slipping is a murder story. It even has a loosely investigative narrative, as Charlie Vaughan works on his assignment. But such facts as Charlie uncovers are peripheral in the light of the affective and reflective testimony that Albert offers, although the writer does successfully challenge the murderer to face the grotesque and bereft aftermath of his deed.

The conventional murder story relies on sequence – cause and effect, resolution and understanding – which in the end confines the crime in question to silence and the past. But there is nothing generic about Slipping’s approach. Just as Albert’s crime is an assault on the predictable, so is the author’s decision to tell the story of his story.

And the more that emerges of what Albert thinks of as the fiction of his life the more difficult it is to add it up and thereby judge it. If one way of looking at what happens to him is to say he’s had a breakdown, his narrative is also broken down. As a result an event turns out not to be what happens at the moment of execution. It begins long before finding physical expression, and keeps on happening after the deed is done. And the dreams and drives of personality are similarly difficult to categorise and define.

These are not conclusions that Slipping reaches, much less preaches, but are conditions that it enacts. To deal with Albert’s “murderous, crimson flow of banality” John Toomey’s largely unadorned prose generates an ebb and flow of motive and agency, love and horror, evasion and absorption, the transient and the episodic. (For good measure the setting is an anonymous seaside town; not to mention Albert’s dual state of being both inundated with a sense of himself and otherwise stranded at the Reil Institute.)

While Charlie Vaughan accumulates information he also gathers the evasions, deceptions, mixed messages and slippages that are inseparable from it, so that assembly becomes the counterpart of undoing. As with the pregnancy scare of Sleepwalker (2008) and the love affair of Huddleston Road (2012), Toomey dives deep into the spaces between debts to self and those to others, and he does so with power, economy and an understated sense of the absurd.

Charlie Vaughan says he is barely a writer. Nobody could say that of Toomey. To presumptively use what might well be his watchword, au contraire.

George O’Brien is professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC