Monday, July 12, 2010

Book: Don’t Point That Thing At Me, by Kyril Bonfiglioli (1972)

The Keenan family motto, Eo sensim quod etiam supervenio, loosely translates from the Latin as “We’re slow, but we get there.” (Bear in mind that translation is exceedingly loose. Bear in mind also that’s not the Keenan family motto. I’m simply lobbying for it to replace the one that has served my clan in good stead for generations: “Are you going to finish that?”) I read this New Yorker article about the novels of Kyril Bonfiglioli in 2004 and bought one that very day. I finally got around to plucking it off the shelf a mere six years later.

Bonfiglioli wrote a trio of tales about one Charlie Mortdecai, a shady aristocrat who toils in the art world along about the patch where it becomes a racket. Charlie’s a sweetheart whose only vices are haberdashery, alcohol and sloth. In his employ is a manservant blessed with the name Jock Strapp, the crudely effective Jeeves to Charlie’s sociopathic Wooster. Here’s our Charlie on a thuggish policeman who has come to call:

Somewhere in the trash he reads Martland has read that heavy men walk with surprising lightness and grace; as a result he trips about like a portly elf hoping to be picked up by a leprechaun. In he pranced, all silent and catlike and absurd, buttocks swaying noiselessly.

Why should I prattle on when Charlie can regale you with a description of the meal he’s served on an international flight?

... plastic smoked salmon, rubber chop in vitreous aspic, chicken turd wrapped in polystyrene bacon and weeping half-thawed strawberry on dollop of shaving soap ...

Most every chapter begins with Charlie rousing himself from slumber and closes with his return to that blissful state. (“I suppose I went to bed at some stage.”) Other that than, I’m not entirely sure what transpires in Don’t Point That Thing At Me. The plotting is, shall we say, casual, a lot of complicated business involving a stolen Goya and some nasty government types. What matters is that Charlie is forced to go to America – which he adores, especially the Cattleman’s Breakfasts – to deliver a Rolls Royce containing the purloined painting, and then kill the recipient. I never understood why.

Don’t Point That Thing At Me is hilarious – until it’s not. The story grows so dark that the savage playfulness of Bonfiglioli’s voice eventually seems out of place. I can also say, at the risk of spoiling the ending, that considering there are two more books in the series with the same characters Bonfiglioli didn’t care a whit about continuity, either. It’s a strange one, this book. It’s funny while not being that good. Or is it not good while still being funny? Yes, that’s the way to think of it.