Thomas E. Kennedy’s “Falling Sideways”
By Jonathan Yardley,
By Thomas E. Kennedy
290 pp. $26
A year ago Thomas E. Kennedy emerged from undeserved obscurity with the English-language publication of “In the Company of Angels,” the first novel in what he calls his “Copenhagen Quartet.” An American now in his mid-60s and a longtime resident of Copenhagen, he has been widely published in Europe and has been awarded a number of prestigious literary prizes, yet until last year he had gone almost entirely unpublished in his native country. The favorable reception accorded “In the Company of Angels” seems to have put him on track at last, a process that may continue with the publication here of the somewhat less successful “Falling Sideways,” the second of his four Copenhagen novels.
Apart from being set in that Danish city, the two novels could hardly be more dissimilar. “In the Company of Angels” is at heart a love story, the principals being a Chilean who has come to a Danish center for the rehabilitation of torture victims and the local woman who becomes deeply involved in his case. By contrast “Falling Sideways” is that rarest of commodities in American literary fiction, a novel about men and women at work; it is part-satire and part-drama, and it is very smart.
The workplace is called the Tank. Kennedy never makes explicitly clear what it does — I have no idea why — but it appears to be a blend of think tank, foundation and university, though its main function seems to be to spin wheels. The son of one of its ranking employees, Frederick Breathwaite, a young man named Jes, had a student job there for a while:
“Jes had been amazed at how little anyone seemed to do. They wrote e-mails or sometimes letters, photocopied and filed them, sent them, and received responses, which needed new letters, new photocopies, new files. They went to meetings. Sometimes some of the big shots went to meetings in other cities or other countries where they apparently had their e-mails translated into other languages so they could talk about them with foreigners. 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.”
Now, though, the door through which Jes’s father passes every day is not so wide as it used to be. At the regular meeting of what’s known to insiders as “the Mumble Club” — “Six chiefs and the CEO, Martin Kampman, who chaired. Four men, two women” — Kampman gives them the bad news: “It hasn’t hit us yet, but there will be a substantial deficit in the last quarter of this year. It might be as high as one hundred and fifty million. So I have to ask every one of you to draft a plan for cutting costs, to absorb the loss.” When the others express astonishment and bewilderment, the CEO says, “You all know — or should know — what has been happening these past many months with foreign investments as well as that both the state and the county have decided to cut our subsidies.” When Breathwaite objects — “We discussed that nearly two years ago. And again last year. It was not seen as a threat” — Kampman icily replies, “The possibility was clear.”
The people chiefly affected by this news are Breathwaite and Harald Jaeger. The former, a 60ish American, is “chief of international affairs, the Tank’s token foreigner, a large, bulky man who walked slowly through the headquarter hallways, speaking Danish like a broken arm.” The latter is a “senior manager,” recently promoted, the divorced father of two girls whom he claims to love but at heart a compulsive womanizer who sees a potential conquest in every woman who crosses his field of vision and is surprisingly successful at getting what he wants.
Kampman, the CEO who follows up his announcement by instilling fear in his employees, is a “professional downsizer,” known behind his back as “Martin the Mortician,” a machine in human flesh whose “aim was one day to so perfectly incorporate time into his bloodstream and nervous system that he could live without a clock.” He’s only 39 years old and hard to the core: “Neither tall nor physically imposing in any way nor, for that matter, brutal or harsh of manner, Kampman had a way of keeping Jaeger unsure, even fearful to an extent.”
Kampman and Breathwaite have one thing in common: Each has a son who is in, or beginning to be in, a state of rebellion. Jes Breathwaite, 21 years old, is further along than 17-year-old Adam Kampman, who is just now discovering the pleasures of life that his demanding father tries to deny him. With Kampman the issue is control; he wants his son to be himself cloned and will do whatever he has to make that happen. With Breathwaite, on the other hand, it’s a matter of love. He is bored by Jes’s two older brothers, leading conventional middle-class Danish lives, but hopes that Jes will be something more interesting and better. Yet Jes spurns every effort his father makes to start him on that path toward success.
Instead he drifts: “He’d dabbled in post-modernism, and he’d dabbled in post-traditionalism and in post-colonialism, and he’d dabbled in post-ethnicity and in behaviorist post-ethicism and no doubt in post-postism, too, leading up to pre-ism, retro-ism, which could end only in now-ism, and then on to neo-nowism ad infinitum, until time stops its survey of all the world.” Not merely is he “a very bright kid with an understanding of everything and a grasp of nothing,” but he’s rejected all his father’s efforts to get his foot in the door at the Tank and works, instead, “in a bloody key-and-heel bar run by a Pakistani.” Breathwaite hates to see “his youngest son wearing a blue workman’s smock and grinding a key on some kind of lathe,” and:
“[His wife] would call him a snob if she could hear his thoughts, but it was not snobbishness; it was respect for the boy’s intelligence and fear of how he was branding himself in this country, where a person who played at being an unskilled laborer ran a very real risk of ending with that as his only option. In the United States, you could reinvent yourself repeatedly. You could probably do it here, too, but only with great effort. Here you were expected to have your papers in order. It was a small country. Every failure was noticed, registered. There were people everywhere who remembered you, and opinions were seldom revised for the better.”
The problem is that Jes is every bit as hard a case as Kampman is. Kennedy may admire and sympathize with Jes’s professed idealism, but Jes is a selfish, self-centered young man whose real interest is only in his own pleasure and who has an especially unpleasant cruel streak. When immature, virginal Adam brings a girl to Jes’s apartment, Jes has her in bed in no time. Jalal, his boss at the lock-and-key shop, is uncommonly kind and generous to him; Jes rewards this by mocking Jalal behind his back, scoring easy points with other local idlers. In his way, he’s even more of a horror than Kampman is, which is to say he’s just about impossible to like.
While Jes fritters his youth away, his father is left to ponder what is to become of the autumn of his own life. His working life is shattered, his marriage is uncertain, the son he most loves has repudiated him as “a dead man who had never lived.” He’s a good man who deserves better.
FALLING SIDEWAYS By Thomas E. Kennedy Bloomsbury 290 pp. $26