Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Review: Wilt

Wilt by Tom Sharpe (1976)

Henry Wilt is unhappy.  After ten years of trying to teach English literature to day-release apprentices in classes like Meat One and Plasterers Two, he's fed up.  He's a good teacher, but hasn't a chance of getting anywhere because the nitwits who run the college are desperate to get the place upgraded to a poly, so they're only interested in promoting post-modern poseurs who can't string together a coherent sentence.  Worse, Wilt is married to Eva, a large woman of even larger enthusiasms who throws herself so completely into whatever she does that she can turn a flower arranging class into a threat to life and limb.  Seeing his life sinking deeper and deeper into a grey mass of unchanging attempts at having something like a peaceful home life while trying to get gas fitters interested in Shane, Wilt tries to console himself as he walks the dog with fantasies of murdering his wife.

Then Eva meets a sophisticated American couple who seems to be everything she yearns for, but it's a meeting that results in Wilt being arrested for murder and the start of a nightmare–for the police inspector who arrests him.

Tom Sharpe is one of those authors who is very hard to explain in summary.  His novels are always gut-bustingly funny with passages that leave the reader literally breathless with laughter, but his humour works by the build up of a carefully constructed farce.  Wilt's attempt to dispose of a rubber sex doll is uproariously funny, but it's impossible to explain why.  You have to read it yourself to get the build up to the climax.  The same goes for the sequence of events that lead to Inspector Flint looking at his pork pie and realising that he may be an accessory after the fact to a murder.

What can be said is that Wilt is arguably Sharpe's best novel.  His creation of Henry Wilt is a masterpiece of an Everyman who sees his life slipping away from him on a daily basis, yet comes to discover hidden talents in himself that ultimately allow him to overcome all obstacles.  His wife, Eva, is equally well written.  As Wilt describes her,
Eva is not forceful. She is a force. There's a difference. And as for character, she has so many and they're so varied it"s difficult to keep up with them all. Let's just say she throws herself into whoever she is with an urgency and compulsiveness that is not always appropriate. You remember that series of Garba pictures they showed on TAI some years back? Well, Eva was La Dame Aux Camelias for three days after that and she made dying of TB look like St Vitus' dance. Talk about galloping consumption.
They are a perfect match for one another and when they are unleashed, woe to the world.

The other thing that is delightful about Sharpe is that he is so gloriously un-PC.  Having been deported from South Africa during the Apartheid era,  he saw up close and personal what mental conformity looked like and has no truck with it.  In Wilt, as in his other novels, he takes great delight in skewering targets on the Left and Right, but takes particular pleasure in going for the soft targets of liberal pretence and hypocrisy.  This is probably the reason why his books, though still in print, don't get the recognition they deserve.

Something Henry Wilt would understand.

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