FALLING SIDEWAYS by Thomas E. Kennedy

Book Quote:

“Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou? The life you seek you shall not find.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (MAR 01, 2011)

In his fantastic and insightful book, On Writing, the prolific writer Stephen King once said: “People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do.”

But what if that work is especially mind-numbing and unfulfilling and involves plodding away at an outfit called the Tank—chatting, shuffling papers, composing reports, sending e-mails and wondering where things went wrong? Would that still make for a readable story? As Thomas Kennedy’s new book, Falling Sideways shows, the answer is yes.

It’s probably because most readers will be able to relate to the book’s central protagonist, Fred Breathwaite. Breathwaite is an American expat living in Denmark, his adopted country, and works as an international liaison at the Tank—he is its “eyes in the greater world outside of Denmark” which means he is also responsible for bringing in international clients and accounts. Breathwaite has no great fascination for his job—as the book opens, he is dreading the Wednesday morning meeting at the “Mumble Club” a weekly meeting of department heads—but knows that the job affords him material comforts and a comfortable life he otherwise would not have had.

Breathwaite has older children comfortably settled and leading their own lives but it his youngest, Jes, who “gave him cause for concern and hope.” The teenaged Jes is convinced he does not want his life to turn out like his Dad’s. It seemed to Jes that “almost nobody in Denmark actually did anything anymore; they all just sat in offices sending e-mails to one another or went to meetings where they sat around a table and talked about the e-mails…Meanwhile, there were a million truly important things that needed doing in the world, things that were a matter of life and death for people who lived in poverty and misery. Jes wanted a foot into that door. And meanwhile, he wanted to do something concrete,” Kennedy writes. This “something concrete” is work at a key shop owned by an Afghani immigrant—Jes works here with his hands duplicating keys and reading Rilke is his spare time.

The elder Breathwaite can’t stand to see his son throw away his life. “The boy had all the right ideas and not a chance of realizing them,” he thinks. It is this conflict between father and son that forms one of the two central theses in the novel.

The other of course, is Breathwaite’s own job. Early in the book, he finds out he is being laid off and replaced by a younger executive Harald Jaeger, a skirt-chasing insecure worker with personal problems of his own. Breathwaite uses this career turn to question what the net sum of his life has really amounted to.

Falling Sideways is populated by a whole host of other characters including Martin Kampman, CEO of the Tank, and professional downsizer; Martin’s son, Adam, who also rebels against his father; and Birgitte Somers, the company’s CFO.

Falling Sideways is the second book in Kennedy’s “Copenhagen Quartet” to be released in the United States. The city comes alive in these pages and Kennedy does a fantastic job of portraying the city in the beautiful season of fall. The problem with Falling Sideways is that it does not meet the high expectations set by the first book in the quartet, In the Company of Angels. Compared to that earlier work, this one seems much more ordinary, its conclusion and narrative path foretold well before the end. In addition, quite a few of the characters seem clichéd and flat—probably because Kennedy never gets a chance to realize them fully. Nevertheless if the point of the quartet is to show Kennedy’s “range,” this book does that task well.

Together, the Copenhagen quartet is meant to encompass the four enduring seasons and if the first two books are any indication, the quartet is on its way to achieve this objective very effectively. In The Company of Angels embodies the spirit of spring. It is possible, after all, to view that book as a ray of hope despite horrific events in the characters’ past. In Falling Sideways, it is the melancholic allure of fall that beautifully permeates the novel. The season of decay and slow death is a perfect metaphor for the downward spiral many of the characters face. And just like the season, there are brief and spectacular splashes of color before it all ends.

It is fitting that Gilgamesh makes a brief appearance in the book. The moral of the story, if there is any, is that one could do no worse than to follow the timeless advice given to Gilgamesh:

Make thou merry by day and by night.
Of each day make thou a feast or rejoicing,
Pay heed to the little one that holds thy hand,
Let thy spouse delight in thy bosom,
For this is the task of mankind.

But as many of the characters in Falling Sideways realize, sometimes the best advice is the hardest to follow.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury USA (March 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Thomas E. Kennedy
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

In The Company of Angels

And another book all about office work:

And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Bibliography:

The Copenhagen Quartet:

  • Bluett’s Blue Hours (2002)
  • Danish Fall (2003) To be published as Falling Sideways (March 2011 US and UK)
  • Greene’s Summer (2004) Published as In the Company of Angels (March 2010 US and UK)
  • Kerrigan’s Copenhagen: A Love Story (2005)

Nonfiction:

  • Andre Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction (1988)
  • The American Short Story Today (1991) (with Henrik Specht)
  • Robert Coover: A Study of the Short Fiction (1992)
  • Index to American Short Story Award Collections (1993)
  • Realism & Other Illusions: Essays on the Craft of Fiction (2002)
  • The Literary Traveler (2005) (with Walter Cummins)
  • Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America (2008)

March 1, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Denmark, Drift-of-Life, Literary, Reading Guide, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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