Sunday, September 5, 2010

CORDUROY MANSIONS by Alexander McCall Smith

The cast of characters is what makes the first book in Alexander McCall Smith's new series, Corduroy Mansions, compulsively readable.

William, a middle-aged wine merchant, is trying to figure out how to get his rude, freeloading son, Eddie, to move out and get his own apartment. Dee, who works at a vitamin shop, has offered to give her young male colleague a colonic irrigation. James, an art student, is having a sexual identity crisis - he thinks he might be straight. Oedipus Snark, a lazy, unprincipled Member of Parliament, is so loathsome that his personal assistant Jenny, his girlfriend Barbara, and even his mother, Berthea, can't stand him. The one entirely sane individual in the book is Freddie de la Hay, a Pimlico terrier (a breed invented to order) - though he is clearly not the sweet puppy pictured on the U.S. book jacket.

In 100 short chapters, the characters get into and out of hilarious predicaments, ruminating as they go. "Ugliness can be beautiful," says James in a typical aside. "Anything can be beautiful. And maybe that's what a certain sort of artist is trying to do: he - or she, of course - is trying to open our eyes to a beauty we would not otherwise see." Surely that is what McCall Smith is trying to do: he loves his flawed characters, and after spending an hour or two enjoying his gentle humor, one sees one's friends and neighbors with kinder eyes.

Don't expect tight plotting, though. McCall Smith wrote this book for The Telegraph as a genuine serial novel - a chapter a day, five days a week, for six months (this is also how he wrote the 44 Scotland Street series for The Scotsman) - and he clearly did not start out with any particular destination in mind. Loose ends abound, but they aren't a problem. We know he'll be back next year to tie some of them up and to leave still more hanging.

Indeed, the second book in this series, The Dog Who Came In from the Cold, has already been published in the U.K., and the third book's first installment will soon appear. This brings McCall Smith's 2009-2010 literary output up to seven and a fraction books (well, he had to do something during the six months when he wasn't writing Corduroy Mansions books). According to a 2007 Associated Press-Ipsos poll, the typical American claims to read about four books a year. That's how many books Alexander McCall Smith writes.

1 comment:

Cindy Bunch said...

I like what you said about how McCall Smith helps us see others more kindly. That's what I've learned from Ma Ramotswe.