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Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys
By Will Self
Grove. 244 pp. $23
Reviewed by Liesl Schillinger,
on the staff of the New Yorker.

Sunday, May 23, 1999

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There are two kinds of writer: the kind that would relish the chance to riff on gristle – updating Proust's "madeleine" moment by calling up as many vile impressions of humanity as possible – and the kind that would not. In his coldly accomplished new book of stories, "Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys," British writer Will Self once again flaunts his membership in the first group. In the title story, the book's centerpiece, a misogynistic, substance-abusing misanthrope named Bill tools toward Glasgow in his turbo-charged car, slugging back whiskey and letting acid-washed memories of failed relationships slosh through his brain. He picks up a hitchhiker on the way, mostly, it seems, so that there will be someone in the car besides himself to hate.

During the ride, he conducts a game of one-upmanship with Mark, his passenger – pouncing on proofs that Mark is even more contemptible than he. "The hitchhiker's breath smelt foully of stale whisky," Bill notices. "His eyes were bivouacked in purple bags, secured by purple veins. He was unshaven. His teeth were furred. He had an impressive infection in the dimple of his strong chin." When Bill treats Mark to a sandwich, glorying in the humiliation implicit in his charitable act, he watches him "struggling with a recalcitrant piece of ham; gristle in a tug-of-war between bread lips and flesh lips." And yet, despite the hitchhiker's poverty, decay and lack of prospects, he has one advantage over his driver; he genuinely looks forward to journey's end, when he will meet a friend and carry out a long tradition: careening down Sauchiehall Street in kiddie-sized Tonka cars, "the big ones, the ones kids can sit on and push along wi' their feet," he explains – a soap-box derby for Scottish tipplers. Bill has long since passed the point where he looked forward to anything. It is a fashionably jaded, if miserable, position to occupy, and it is one that the author of these stories presumably likes to imagine he shares.

Mencken once defined a pessimist as a man who thinks everyone else is as nasty as himself and hates them for it, but Will Self seems to hate people who aren't as nasty as he would like to be – not that this makes him an optimist. His tales inevitably contain the bleak, facile message that only nasty people – the ones blinkered by drugs or self-destruction or ignorance – retain the capacity for fun. By extension, decent people are dull and, in their dullness, sub- or anti-human. Self's fables display clockwork brilliance. Hard, crystalline precision ticks unerringly through them without ever conferring the blush of life. The electricity that powers the movement is a cranked-up adolescent fervor for creepy-crawlies, visceral sexual boasting, disgust for women, and worship of drugs and bad guys – the preoccupations of the sort of British public school boy who earns respect for his menacing qualities, and would never want to make prefect.

In "Flytopia," an unpleasant man arranges for insects to devour the girlfriend he loathes; in "A Story for Europe," a 2-year old British toddler speaks perfect business German, while a Frankfurt banker named Herr Doktor Zweijerig (a pun on "2 years old") slowly loses his mind. "Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo: A Manual" is a standard tale of marital infidelity, made unusual only by its impersonality. The collection is bookended by two comparatively sympathetic stories about brothers named Tembe and Danny, black Londoners who strike it rich on a crack hoard, and live high until one of them ends up in prison for a crime he did not commit – raping, killing and dismembering a little boy. Tembe and Danny may have deserved a novel, but in the end, one guesses, the author tired of them after exhausting their use as devices for self-comparison. In prison with the "nonces" – British prison slang for pedophiles, the lowest of the jailhouse low – Danny finds redemption in short-story writing, for which Self accords him no small gift.

The title of "Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys" comes from a decades-old ad campaign for Tonka toy cars, and slyly hints at the author's awareness of the arrested development of his characters, and of his target audience. The dark devices Self relies on still bring gasps of admiration and shock, but for a successful author who has long since navigated the thicket of pubescent self-loathing there is a risk that they also serve a cynical purpose, providing cover for a failure of sustained imagination. Without artful plotting – as in Patrick McGrath's brilliantly structured collection "Blood and Water and Other Tales" or Martin Amis's "London Fields" or Celine's "Journey to the End of Night" – tough boys never turn into tough men, just as a Tonka car will never win the Grand Prix, no matter how loud its driver screams "Vroom!"

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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