Thomas E. Kennedy's FALLING SIDEWAYS, the second novel of his COPENHAGEN QUARTET to be published in the U. S., made me wish that the next book in the series will get to these shores sooner rather than later. Filled with both subtle and not-so-subtle satire, it is the rarest of novels, one that appeals to the intellect and ultimately the heart. There is much that will make you smile-- as Mr. Kennedy delights us with the many foibles of these characters-- but just as much to make you mull over and over what really matters in this short time we have here. After all, the first words we read in this strange-- in the best sense of the word-- and beautiful novel are lines from Philip Larkin: ". . . we should be careful/Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time."
The novel is set in contemporary Copenhagen. Several of the characters-- Frederick Breathwaite, Harald Jaeger, Claus Clausen, Brigitte Sommer and Martin Kampman-- are employees of The Tank (we never find out just what this corporation does). Most of the remaining characters are either spouses or children of these four. Additionally there are Jalal al-Din, the owner of Dom of the Rock Key & Heel Bar, his wife and son. (As I read again and again about the Dom, I asked myself how did Kennedy know so much about shoe repair.) Although this writer's chief targets are materialism (Jes Breathwaite tells Adam Kampman that his father was "raised cuckold but lost his father's faith and converted to materialism") and the shark-infested contemporary workplace ("Kill or be killed") where CEO's are hired to fire and concerned only with profit-and-loss statements, no subject is off-limits: the hypocrisy of parents, sleeping with married co-workers--even if it takes ten years to score, surfing the internet for sex while at work, discrimination against people who may not look like you or live someplace else (Kampman does not trust the Irish), and people who do not read, to name a few. There is a delightful passage when Jaeger remembers a conversation he was privy to between Breathwaite and an American couple, "the male half of whom had been trained as an astronaut," who read LASSIE to his wife in bed. The wife wants to know what Breathwaite has read lately. He replies that he has just read Neruda's memoir, someone the uninformed American woman has never heard of. Breathwaite tells her that Neruda is a Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize in 1971. She finds that "cool."
Mr. Kennedy it seems can do anything with words. I knew I was in for a reading treat when he makes a verb out of "slipper" in the first chapter. His little run on bras, to Maidenform bras, to maiden to maidenhead (p. 264) is a touch of genius. Or how about this sentence: "It has been raining all day, and the sky hung like a marbleized gray ceiling, low over the city." Then there is the delicious line when Breathwaite can "see clear up to Christmas."
After I finished this novel, I reread chapter 6 ("The Mumble Club"), the last chapter and the first chapter. "The Mumble Club"-- that could almost stand alone as a brilliant short story-- is pivotal to most of what happens later in the novel. The first chapter takes on a whole new meaning-- without revealing too much of the plot-- after you have read the last chapter. What I suppose I'm trying to say is that Mr. Kennedy is a master storyteller but he respects his reader's intelligence.
Frederick Breathwaite ultimately is a character whom-- even if Colm Toibin, a writer I revere, would tell me that it is not my job as a reader to like-- I think I do, or at least on some level I understand him. I have known too many Breathwaites or too many people afraid of becoming a Breathwaite. And Mr. Kennedy saves some of his most beautifully poignant passages for him. Near the end of the novel, he, puffing on a "half-smoked apostolado," thinks of his mother and father "years ago, attending a one-man Victor Borge show on Broadway. When? It was the mid-fifties, late fifties, maybe. When he was a child. He remembered them coming home afterward in a taxi. . . Mom in fashionable black, a white fur pillbox hat on her pretty head, flushed with happiness, so amused at the Dane's monologue. . . Strange it seemed to him that that had been back in the United States, land of weak coffee, thin beer, and surly cabdrivers, in New York City, in Sunnyside, Queens, some five decades before, when he was a boy, and now he sat on Victor Borge Place in Copenhagen, fifty years and eight thousand miles away. His beautiful, unfaithful mother was dead, his idealistic, compassionate father, the amusing sardonic Victor Borge. . . All dead." This moving passage, in a strange way is reminiscent of James Joyce's "The Dead."
Finally FALLING SIDEWAYS is Mr. Kennedy's homage to Copenhagen, a city he obviously loves. It shows on practically every page of this thoughtful novel.