The essence of “A Ladder to the Sky,” the new novel for adults from Irish author John Boyne, is an old proverb. Late in the novel, Maurice Swift, the amoral writer at the novel’s center, tells a much younger writer: “And you’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, haven’t you? … That it’s like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy.”
For his entire life, the blindingly handsome Maurice Swift has wanted only two things: to be a writer and to be a father. In fact, he is prepared to go to any lengths to realize his ambitions, even though it becomes patently clear that he lacks the genius to successfully achieve either. Yet, for the reader, becoming a part of his shameless machinations results in an exuberant entertainment and an ominous disquiet.
Remember Tom Ripley, that completely unprincipled thief in five addictive crime thrillers from Patricia Highsmith? Let’s just say that Maurice Swift gives Tom Ripley a run for his money.
There are five sections that track Maurice’s journey. Each of the sections has a different point of view.
In 1988, Erich Ackermann, a German writer discovering himself unexpectedly once again in vogue, introduces himself — and us — to Maurice Swift, a young waiter in a West Berlin restaurant. Ackermann is so desperately lonely that he is quite open to a young waiter’s interest in an established author’s work.
Maurice accompanies Ackermann to Rome, Madrid, Paris and New York as his assistant, slowly coaxing from his benefactor a personal secret held for decades, a secret Ackermann refers to as “the story that defined my life” and a secret that Maurice will turn into his first bestseller, even if it means destroying Ackermann in the process.
Twelve years later finds us in the middle of a narrative told by Edith Camberley, Maurice’s Caribbean wife, a writer herself. It’s a truly unsettling narrative, made more so by being told in the risky second person. It is that sense of being a bit off-kilter that is pervasive throughout the story of Maurice’s unsuccessful marriage (there have been four miscarriages) as he tries to salvage a stalled career (four book proposals have been recently turned down). The problem of where his new novel will come from and the inherent problems of the failing marriage will be dispatched with such astonishing alacrity that we don’t have time to blink, much less gasp.
The present day is related to us by Maurice himself as he is interviewed by a young graduate student during weekly meetings at a number of the pubs in London’s West End. “I used to be a writer but now I’m a drunk,” a dissipated Maurice tells anyone who asks. Young Theo Field, the interviewer, reminds Maurice of himself at that age. Maurice might just be more accurate than he knows, however. Theo, himself, is harboring a secret that will take the aging writer back to his youth and to his start in West Berlin.
Among these three sections are two “interludes.” One is Maurice’s wickedly funny overnight stay at the home of writer Gore Vidal, a home overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The other is a portrait of Maurice in New York City as the publisher of a literary journal (from which he is stealing ideas for his next novel from among the many unsolicited submissions) and as the single father to his young son Daniel (about whom Maurice inadvertently comments, “He has a terrific imagination … I don’t know here he gets it from”).
Certainly not from his father, a man who recognizes his limitations and finds relentlessly striking ways to allow for them. Because of his ruthless nature, those ways can always be found at play, even as late as the book’s final paragraphs.
Even if Maurice is a bit of, well, an unrepentant psychopath, “A Ladder to the Sky” still remains a great deal of fun. Even if it is sometimes explicit, the book remains always smart. It is, finally, John Boyne’s inspired, if somewhat cheeky, reminder of just how difficult it is to keep a bad man down.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.