IT'S ALL RIGHT NOW
By Charles Chadwick
HarperCollins. 679 pp. $25.95
If It's All Right Now were a lesser work, the story of its creator might overwhelm it. Charles Chadwick is a 72-year-old retired British civil servant. The image of a lifelong bureaucrat emerging from piles of moldering forms with a jewel-like manuscript and being ushered into the light of literary accolades and six-figure advances (in pounds sterling, mind you) is compelling but fanciful. It's All Right Now is Chadwick's fifth novel, merely the first to be published. If the assured and diverse characterizations and confident pacing appear to be the work of a lifelong novelist, it is because they are.
The novel charts 30 years in the life of British accountant Tom Ripple. He is as bland and mild as his name suggests, possessed of many ordinary desires and antipathies; at first glance he seems emblematic of the forgotten man, toiling in obscurity, the recipient of a retirement watch, a man whose absence inspires little reflection. As a marketing ploy, a 700-page tome trafficking in the minutiae of a middle-aged corporate cog leaves much to be desired. Even readers with a taste for complexity will be challenged by Ripple's occasionally lugubrious ruminations and the attendant microscopic level of detail. The novel is, at points, as boring as Ripple's own existence.
But Chadwick gives us Ripple from the inside out. The book is ostensibly Ripple's memoir, although it is organized more as a disconnected series of reminiscences, produced from volumes of notes, a project he commenced as a junior employee of a London-based import and export concern in order to appear busy at work. Writing fulfills several functions for Ripple. It is cathartic, helping him exorcise his intense dislike of his younger, more ambitious supervisor. It is confessional, as when he confides the occasional arousal he experiences at the sight of his maturing daughter, Virginia. And it is an expression of self-effacement, as when he writes: "Had I been less ordinary, how much more might I have made of things, what more might I have understood, more might I have done? But then there would have been less to write about, less need for it rather, my usefulness to the world speaking eloquently enough for itself."
That Tom Ripple hasn't made much of his life is transmitted, at least by Ripple's lights, as an article of faith. He married a woman more educated and ambitious than himself, a social worker whose relentless drive to put mundane events in abstruse, theoretical terms is maddening, even if Ripple himself cannot bring himself to inveigh against it. "My wife is an eminently reasonable woman," he notes. "It is a key aspect of her eminence in general." He cedes control over the household to her and contents himself with American cop shows, the odd game of badminton, pornography he keeps stashed in the office and, when a promotion makes it possible, liaisons with foreign prostitutes on business trips.
It is not a marriage built to last, and it does not. When he is laid off during a merger, his wife moves out of their North London house with their son and daughter. Ripple decamps to a village just inland from the Suffolk coast. It is only the first sojourn of a long retirement. He is inducted into village life, consorting with a menagerie of East Anglian eccentrics: a retired government official who all but wears his Officer of the British Empire medal pinned to his chest, a snide real estate agent, a gaggle of hippie artisans who make crafts at a local arts center and a retired army colonel and his American wife.
But as quickly as he arrived, he's gone, pushed out under the accumulated weight of social embarrassment. He relocates to London, where he again becomes involved with an eclectic assortment of neighbors. There are stories here, overlapping and complex, that need not be recounted to commend Chadwick's book. If Ripple's were a sleepy retirement, then his unassuming tendency to drift would blur seamlessly and tediously with the novel. But a subtle momentum gathers in the wake of events, under which Ripple appears to revise his estimation of his own humanity, his need for connection, community and love. These tendencies grow in him the older he gets and the more he writes. As such, the writing assumes a richness and even occasional majesty that it thoroughly lacks in the early pages, although even patient readers might be forgiven for giving up on It's All Right Now without ever reaching the conclusion. During the last of the novel's four sections Ripple explains his decision to move to the coast with a lyrical recollection of happier times, before the breakup of his marriage: "In that moment I believed that if I'd listened long and hard enough the voices would have sounded clear in the wind, that if I'd suddenly turned there we'd be on our knees round a sand-castle, hurrying to finish it before the tide came in."
An easy criticism of Chadwick's style would be to suggest that early on he goes to too great lengths to convey his protagonist's lack of literary gifts, his fondness for execrable puns and an inclination toward cliche. But this plodding beginning sets the stage for the execution of one of the trickier literary maneuvers -- the honest representation of slow change. *
Adam Mazmanian is a writer living in Washington, D.C.