Book review – Ordinary life, extraordinary wisdom

2013-03-03 10:00

There’s a lot of wisdom distilled in Steven Boykey Sidley’s second novel, Stepping Out. I haven’t read his debut, Entangled, but now I plan to.

In Stepping Out, Sidley chooses a very simple template for a modern morality tale: Harold Cummings, a sixtysomething retired plumbing engineer suddenly gets the itch to rebel against all the long decades of his “perfect” life.

He gets the opportunity to experiment during a week in which his loving wife leaves town to look after her sick sister.

It starts with Cummings uttering the occasional delicious swear word and ends only after a trail of sex, tattoos, booze, drugs, violence and one very badly played rock’n’roll chord have left a tiny ripple in the great dam that is Middle America.

It took me all but a moment to get over the idea of a South African writing a book set in America for a South African audience.

Sidley creates his sense of place convincingly though and says he based it on experiences he had while living in the US during “an uncommon period of my life”. Thanks to film and TV,

America will feel familiar enough to us. But this book goes beyond pop culture and does what novels of its type must do: question the middle class American Dream, which has to an extent become the global dream (work hard, raise a family, stay loyal to your spouse – and perhaps your employer – abide by any and every law, mow the lawn, wash your car and retire in comfort.

But Sidley’s protagonist wakes up one day and wonders: Why did I bother? What was the point of it all?

In the hands of a less assured voice and a less skilful writer, this novel could have seemed contrived and Cummings would have come across as just an unlikeable old cardboard cliché.

But Sidley makes Cummings’ absurdities very real and creates tensions a literary studies or philosophy class could spend a good few hours unpacking (particularly how modern consumer culture, the free availability of pornography and the glorification of tabloid stars could make this conservative old man feel he’s missed out on all the real fun of life), while at the same time keeping this a rollicking, entertaining read about how easy it is for anyone to go off the rails.

There were a few things I didn’t like, particularly a very contrived email that’s supposed to come from Cummings’ wreck of a daughter, but which really has no place in the story.

However, on the whole, this is a book that will do something very special: make you feel increasingly cynical and then unexpectedly wiser, richer in spirit and more grateful for the life you have, however boring it may seem.

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