|Cover design by gray318|
Penguin Fig Tree, 5 March 2020
'A love triangle with gangsters? Not a good idea.'
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Good, the Bad, and the Little Bit Stupid via NetGalley.
Unusually, Lewycka opens this book with a couple of pages setting the scene and - apparently - telling us how to approach the characters.There are George and Rosie Pantis. George, aged 79 and retired as a philosophy lecturer to write poetry (no poetry occurs). Rosie, twenty years younger and still working as a teacher to support him. Poseidon (Sid) and Cassiopeia (Cassie), their children. Sid's partner, Jacquie, pregnant and very patient with Rosie's grumbles about George. Brenda, with whom George is now living. The intro swiftly sums up the background - George's defection on that fateful night in June 2016, first to Leave in the Referendum and then to Brenda, the looming threat of financial fraud and the assurance that this isn't a book where good and bad get their just desserts and that there aren't actually any good guys here, just people with mixed up motives and different sides to them.
While useful in orienting us to the characters and where they are, I found this synopsis a little surprising and part of me, throughout the book, was ruminating on it, trying to see whether I agreed or not. Was it meant to be taken seriously? Was it a bit of sly misdirection? I'm still not sure whether that was the intended effect although I have to say it probably made me pay closer attention and That can't be a bad thing.
Indeed, close attention is merited because in discussing Rosie, George, Brenda and the rest, Lewycka is - overtly - dissecting the Brexity turmoil of the past three years in Britain. One can almost assign roles. Brenda is Leave - strident, proudly non PC. Rosie is Remain - disappointed, puzzled and, increasingly, angry. George is perhaps Everyman - tilting Leave at the last minute but for reasons that depart from the official script. And Sid, Jacquie and Cassie are, Sid muses, those who will have to put things back together in the future years and decades.
On this reading, though, Lewycka isn't even-handed but makes it clear she thinks George is a fool. The overt plot in this book focuses on a complicated piece of identity theft which draws him in. It's a far from obvious scam which involves several different factions and has some genuinely funny moments, but despite this it's clear there is something fishy going on. It is hard not to join the dots to interpret George's Leave vote as a the result of another complex scam (aided perhaps by the book's title) so - despite that intro - I think we know where we are in terms of Brexit Britain.
All that said, there is a great deal more to this book, a lot of gentle comedy laced with misunderstandings (all round), jealousy (between Brenda and Rosie) and incompetence (the scamming crooks who are onto George). And I think Lewycka does well giving voice to the sense of hurt that many of us have ('It's the closeness of the result, it's the feeling of being cheated, it's the sense that the other side it being wilfully stupid and just doesn't understand the issue...')
It has heart, too, as Sid ponders his future relationship with Jacquie and their child. I found this very moving - Sid and Jacquie are well drawn characters, Sid, a maths lecturer, with 'Noether's theorem in his mind' (Emmy Noether deserves wider recognition!), Jacquie who is 'such a sympathetic listener that Rosie prefers talking to her, rather than to Sid...' They would, perhaps, be easy to overlook give all the hullabaloo from the others. And after a lot of setup in the opening three quarters, the book shifts up a few gears and gives us quite a different ending from what we might expect. In doing that, things suddenly move very fast, with the book covering - literally a great deal of ground in relatively few pages. I'd have welcomed more time, and detail, in this section.
There is some great, sly writing hereg: a song sung, with variations, by, among other groups 'Angela and the Muttis' and 'The Blue-Eyed Barnier Boy', the description of a certain politician: 'He's a dangerous demagogue, with his populist posturing and and mendacious mouth grinning open like a frog waiting too catch some innocent fly with his fast flicking tongue.' (Who COULD it be?). 'What is national identity', we are asked rhetorically, 'but victimhood with boots on?' More earthily - here is a kiss: 'Her lips taste of secrecy and forest chestnuts...'
As much a commentary on contemporary Britain - well, England - as Lewycka's previous books, this is a thoroughly good read. Perhaps the intro reflects the impossibility of trying to exist - to live or two write - in our current climate without taking a position while at the same time being told to get over it, move forward, unify, something which seems impossible and has to be cast forward to future generations.
For more about the book, see the publisher's website here.