Quicksand by Steve Toltz
Steve Toltz’s Quicksand is a maniacally funny novel about friendship, hope and the human condition; it is a work at once soul-lifting and spirit-crushing, capable of eliciting both uproarious laughter and inward cringe in a relatable voice of nostalgia, commitment, and kindness. Narrated by Liam, an aspiring writer, Quicksand tells the story of his best friend from childhood, Aldo Benjamin, a hopeless but big-dreaming romantic who, despite countless cosmic efforts to sink his spirit, can’t help but believe something good might eventually come his way.
Typically, novels written about writers and their works in progress succumb to the same self-referential pitfalls, but Quicksand is different. It’s smarter than those books where, at the end, a writer starts penning his breakout novel only to have readers discover that they’d been reading it since page one: Quicksand uses Liam’s author status as a joke, an added layer of hopelessness and failure to the novel’s already-sunken cast of misfits. For his first book, Liam ridiculously joined the police academy to do research for a character, and after his manuscript tanked he realized “to [his] horror that in researching and writing [his] novel [he] had acquired the qualifications of a New South Wales police officer.” “And that,” he explains,” is the stupid reason a passive and relatively lazy, fearful writer – neither a doer nor a fighter, nor a respecter of the laws of man – perversely became a cop.”
Liam’s cop-by-way-of-failed-author status is compounded hilariously alongside Aldo Benjamin, a routine lawbreaker. Their friendship dates back to high school, where their drifting, teenage malaise aligned brilliantly into a lifelong camaraderie.
Aldo dreamed bigger than being a famous writer: he wanted to be a socio-economic genius of entrepreneurship and charisma, a millionaire or even more, and a match for life to Stella, his high school love. He dreamt of “a lifestyle indistinguishable from that of a highly successful drug baron or sex trafficker, that is, a magnificent house with water views, top-shelf escorts, and suitcases stuffed with cash.” But when we first meet him, he’s a mess: he’s paralyzed from the waist down, recently released from prison, and estranged from Stella. Quicksand jumps around the “atrocity” that is his life, from the glory days of Aldo and Liam’s youth to a hundred and fifty pages of Aldo’s court testimony transcript.
Steve Toltz deftly crafts Aldo’s life into something unfathomably charming despite its emotional chasms. In one short scene on the beach, before Aldo’s spinal injury but well after the fracture of his relationship with Stella, he composes haikus with a new friend and her artist associates: “My spirit animal – / A dog with its head / in a bucket.” He’s a hilarious tragedy, and always has been: in another scene earlier in the novel, Liam confronts a suicidal Aldo after hearing from a colleague that a crooked vet sold him Nembutal:
“You do know that Nembutal is horse poison, right?”
“Of course I know. You think I want human poison? You’d have to pour yourself literally buckets of human poison just so you can reach the point where you can say: This is enough to kill a horse.”
Toltz steps effortlessly into the mad mechanics of Aldo’s mind, and at these moments of darkness finds a person so desperate to make the best of his situation with a wry smirk and deadpan humor. Another memorable scene presents a teenage Aldo and Stella in the parking lot outside an abortion clinic. She’s smoking a cigarette, and Aldo asks if she should be, considering her situation. “Right now not smoking is like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” she replies, and Aldo’s minds drifts:
“Aldo thought about sleeplessness, incessant laundry, and repurposed breasts. He alternated between a vision of a monstrous apparition of a deformed baby and one of a perfect baby, with negligent parents, falling down the stairs. He imagined the abortionist’s backstory: a young man with a hook for a hand getting into medical school. He imagined Stella giving birth to a terra-cotta warrior, to an eel.”
The cruelest trick in all of Quicksand, down there among Aldo’s shadows, is that he’s the better writer, and he’s better than Liam will ever be. Aldo’s court testimony literally usurps Liam’s narrative for half the novel, and through Aldo’s voice the mysteries of his timeline fall painfully into place with another suicide attempt, a dead ex-lover, a neurotic ex-professor, prison abuse and an existential crisis.
“To write about you is to troubleshoot the human spirit,” Liam tells Aldo. It’s easy to see Aldo as the embodiment of ambition and dreams against all odds, but it’s curious to watch Liam fade out as Aldo’s story reaches its apex. Perhaps Liam is referring to the act of writing about a person who is infinitely more worthy of a story than their biographer. Perhaps there’s something more to learn about humility amidst all this hope and strife.