New York Times Review
THE QUESTION WRITERS are asked most often is Where do you get your ideas? And the answers - ranging from the occult to the mundane - always seem to disappoint. Perhaps a better answer is the one Maurice Swift, the protagonist of John Boyne's new novel, "A Ladder to the Sky," gives: "The answer is no one knows where they come from and nobody should know." Not the most original response, but to be fair, Maurice Swift is a plagiarist. (Of course the name Maurice is most famously the title of E. M. Forster's novel about a doomed homosexual love affair which begins at Cambridge University.) While Maurice Swift lacks a nose for original story, he's an expert at sniffing out opportunities for advancement by exploiting, in particular, the libidinous desires of older gay authors. Unencumbered by any sense of shame, and driven by a pathological level of ambition, Maurice has the heart of a sniper. Fortunately for him, almost all of his material, whether in the form of story or professional connections, comes his way with an-antelope-stumblesin-front-of-a-lion serendipity. It helps that along with his charm and intellect (he jousts in Latin with Gore Vidal), Maurice is also disconcertingly attractive to both women and men. There is little sport for Maurice at 22, a Caravaggio in his Savoy waiter's uniform working the bar, in landing his first conquest, Erich Ackermann, a closeted 66year-old professor at Cambridge (wink, wink) and prizewinning novelist. Soon smitten, Ackermann unwittingly provides Maurice with a story - a devastating betrayal he committed out of lust during his time as a member of Hitler Youth - which Maurice pockets as easily as an apple. The seeds of it will become his debut novel, "Two Germans." While the publicity is personally and professionally shattering for Ackermann, it catapults Maurice into the center of London's literary society. It is on the arm of Dash that Maurice is transported to the Valhalla of the queer literary world, Gore Vidal's villa on the Amalfi Coast, and the reader into the mind of the author who once said, "Every time a friend succeeds I die a little." Vidal-ascharacter is marvelously engaging, barbed and witty and juiced with nasty asides (of course, he owns a first edition of "Maurice"). It is here, seen through Vidal's eyes, that Maurice feels most alive. Unfortunately, neither Maurice nor the novel, which until this point is very engaging, thrives in captivity. The narrative of the third section is Edith, Maurice's longsuffering wife. Edith is also a novelist, only vastly more talented and hardworking than her husband. Her debut, "Fury" (you see where this is going), suggests she has extraordinary promise, and her new manuscript is brilliant. For reasons that become evident only at the end of the section, Edith tells her story in direct address. It's a narrative device that is a bit baffling for the reader, given that Maurice is already familiar with the facts of their story, until a twist sends the plot, regrettably, in a different direction, away from its promising beginning as a comic novel satirizing the literary world, and toward the realm of simple satire, which glories in cliché and antic cruelty. I wish Boyne had chosen one path or the other. I cheer his attacks on the publishing industrial complex, but the strokes are so broad the assault is more ticklish than brutal. If satire was Boyne's intention, a bit more poison in the pen would have helped in drawing out the three female characters, all of whom suffer under the weight of stereotypes. The greatest mockery is heaped on an ambitious young female writer, Henry Etta James, whom Maurice once published in his brief tenure as editor of a literary magazine but now derides as insignificant. James's greatest crime? She has the temerity to not only disagree with Maurice's characterization of her work but, once rejected, to disappear. Perhaps it's not that her work was subpar. Perhaps there was just nothing there for him to steal. ELISSA SCHAPPELL, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of "Blueprints for Building Better Girls" and "Use Me." Unencumbered by any sense of shame or empathy, Maurice has the heart of a sniper.
Publishers Weekly Review
This evocative saga from Boyne (The Heart's Invisible Furies) presents the Machiavellian literary success of Maurice Swift. In the late 1980s, Swift is an aspiring writer working as a waiter in West Berlin when he meets acclaimed author Erich Ackermann. Despite Swift's inexperience, Ackermann is besotted by Swift's beauty and coy sycophancy and employs him as his assistant. In a fruitless effort to win Swift's affections, Ackermann entrusts him with his darkest secret: in 1939, information he gave SS officers led to the deaths of five people. Swift then uses Ackermann's stories as the basis of a commercially successful novel, and to incriminate Ackermann. But Ackermann is just his first victim, and for the next 30 years, Swift's ruthlessness flourishes as he manipulates others' sexual desires and talents to further his literary career. Swift's story spans the fall of the Berlin Wall to the present day as his career's demise is related from the perspectives of Ackermann; a fictionalized Gore Vidal; Swift's wife, novelist Edith Camberley; and finally Swift himself. In his relentless pursuit of literary canonization, despite creative impotence, Swift is an enthralling yet profoundly disturbing protagonist. Boyne's fast-paced, white-knuckle plot, accompanied by delightfully sardonic commentary on the ego, insecurities, and pitfalls of those involved in the literary world, makes for a truly engrossing experience. Agent: Eric Simonoff, WME Entertainment. (Nov.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.