I’m suspicious of novels that are praised as laugh-out-loud, impossible-to-put-down page-turners. I don’t often laugh out loud while reading; I get bored easily with purportedly page-turning thrillers, and with two kids in the house and deadlines to meet, I can put down nearly any book. But “Heliopolis,” James Scudamore’s exhilarating satire of class conflict in Sao Paulo, Brazil, merits just about every hackneyed plaudit one can hurl at it. It’s a book that I found myself very reluctant to put down, even when I had to.
As I read about Scudamore’s hero, Ludo dos Santos, and his harrowing and insane exploits inside and outside the world of marketing, I couldn’t help but recall that classic “Saturday Night Live” spoof of late-night TV pitchmen hawking ridiculous, multipurpose products (“It’s a floor wax! It’s a dessert topping!”). Scudamore’s labyrinthine novel boasts many seemingly contradictory ambitions.
On one level, “Heliopolis” is a 21st-century bildungsroman that riffs cleverly on Dickens’s “Great Expectations.” Here, the hero discovers some disturbing secrets about his past many years after being rescued from a life of poverty by a supermarket tycoon and his do-gooder wife. At the same time, the novel is a moving and erotic love story — in this case, a semi-incestuous relationship between dos Santos and his married, adoptive sister. It’s also a blistering dark comedy about corporate exploitation and a violent thriller whose brutality recalls the films “ City of God ” and “Reservoir Dogs.”
That said, “Heliopolis” is not a perfect book. Books this ambitious rarely are. With chapters that alternate between present and past, the novel’s structure can seem too schematic. A couple of Scudamore’s plot contrivances, which enable his hero to navigate Sao Paolo’s rich and exploited societies, can seem hastily conceived and overwrought. And the novel’s final, disturbing images carry more metaphorical baggage than is probably necessary.
Still, what is most impressive about “all this unbecoming cuckoldry and incest,” as dos Santos puts it, is how the novel succeeds at realizing nearly all of its aims. That is due largely to Scudamore’s vibrant and seemingly effortless prose. Gripping and riotous, brutal and sentimental — floor wax and dessert topping — this laugh-out-loud page-turner is all yours for the low-low price of $15!
“Heliopolis” was long-listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize; my money says Scudamore will take the prize before this decade is over.
Langer’s most recent novel is “The Thieves of Manhattan.”
By James Scudamore
Europa. 277 pp. Paperback, $15