Ian Sansom's fourth in the Mobile Library Series is a 3-D book. No, it is not a pop-up book. Nor is it so described because the characters and their small town in Northern Ireland emerge fully formed like Venus from the sea, although that's certainly part of it. It's because in addition to depth and definitude, Sansom adds a third dimension: daftness. Daftness is such a rarified dimension, a stratum where only the immensely gifted can survive. Here is where Sansom thrives. The characters, the plot, the town of Tumdrum are daft indeed. But it's a smart, snappy, literate daftness that reveals insights into the scope of life.
As Peter O'Toole's character, Alan Swann, says in the movie My Favorite Year, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." The number of truly funny storytellers is and always has been vastly outnumbered by melodramatists (my own word for writers of humorless, overblown fiction) and humorist wannabes. Not many can stand with the likes of, say, Joseph Heller. But I laughed longer and harder at Sansom's incisive, satiric, and intelligent wit than I have since, perhaps, reading Catch 22. I enjoyed it so much that upon completion of this book I immediately read its three prequels.
As The Bad Book Affair opens, "Tumdrum's and possibly Ireland's only English Jewish vegetarian mobile librarian" Israel Armstrong is pining for his ex-girlfriend. Alone in a strange land - being neither Catholic nor Protestant and a vegetarian leaves him with few likeminded types in this small Irish town - he has retreated to his rented quarters (a converted chicken coop) on the Devine farm. Subsisting on a self-pity diet of peanut butter and wine, Israel has slimmed down from his previous girth of 16 stone (224 pounds) and has let his beard grow. Bathing has also taken a holiday. It's only through the intervention of Israel's associate Ted Carson that the young man is wrenched from the grip of despair and returns to his position as "Outreach Support Officer" of Tumdrum's mobile learning center.
He is no sooner back on the job when he loans Philip Roth's American Pastoral from among the library's not-quite-censored "Unshelved" collection to a 14-year-old girl who subsequently goes missing. Of course, as an outsider he becomes a person of interest in her disappearance and takes it upon himself to solve a mystery that serves as the slender thread with which Sansom weaves this tale of personal pathos, political hypocrisy, religious grandiosity and societal pretense. Nobody escapes Sansom's satiric barb. There is the library's "Unshelved" service that, while not formally censoring books, keeps them deliberately from view of young people, as though they're contaminated with infectious diseases. Or the leader of an upstart religion (who "smiled beatifically - like a saint. Or Ned Flanders,") who confesses that he had to "defellowship" the troubled missing girl from his congregation because she "broke covenant" by harming herself. Or even Israel himself who doesn't grasp a single one of Reverend Roberts's biblical references yet his own Old Testament citation happens to be a quote from a popular 1960's British comedic television show called "Beyond the Fringe."
In fact, Israel is a man living beyond the fringe, a foreigner who personifies the outsider in anyone who has ever felt just a tad out of step with the world. Inside every Mobile Outreach Support Officer is a mobile librarian begging to be heard, understood, accepted. Tumdrum, he says, is just not his milieu. When asked what he imagines would be his milieu Israel sees not just another place, but another era. What he is not seeing is that his service in Tumdrum is bringing him into tune with where he is whether he likes it or not. While it is not necessary to read the previous books in the series to enjoy this one, I recommend it because, well, who doesn't enjoy a good 3-D adventure?
This review is from the March 3, 2010 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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