A Non-Review of Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman

Putting it bluntly, I am not a good book reviewer. I know what I like but have trouble explaining why. If I write at any length I tend to the book report format - brief intro, plot outline, brief conclusion stating whether or not I liked it. The standard boring sort of stuff you see in newspaper reviews all the time. Mind you, I do try to make a point of stating my conclusion about the book. You'll get a bit of an idea of my worth when I finally get round to finishing a double review I've been trying to write for the past month. I have the opening paragraph, and that's about it. I can feel a plot outline coming on even now.

Which brings me to Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman. This novel was published in 1998 so reviewing it now seems a bit of a waste of time. So I won't.

What I will do is give you a few of my thoughts about the book, which you can read as a review if you like.

I bought the novel some years back (about 2000, if the edition information on the copyright page proves anything) and had been meaning to read it for some time. Then Perlman's new book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, came out, and the film version of Three Dollars was announced, filming started, and a release date was announced. I thought I had to get on with it or I'd get caught in the flood.

I finished the book a couple of weeks back and have been thinking about it on and off since. I didn't hate it, and I didn't love it either. But I had been thinking about it so that must have meant it made an impression of some sort.

My first thought on finishing the novel was that it was too long. Actually, this realisation came to me at about page 250 - the novel is some 381 pages long - and made the last section of the book a bit of a chore to get through. I really wish an editor had got to this one a bit more. I would say 60 to 80 pages could have been safely excised and the final result would have been a lot tighter, the rambling would have been done away with and I might have come away from the novel with a better feeling about it. There is a lot of characters sitting round talking about stuff that is, at best, peripheral to the plot. For a while I couldn't work out why the novel's editor didn't cut this stuff. Then it struck that she probably had. Or, at least, had cut a lot of it. In other words, the novel started out way longer than the current version. It reads like it anyway.

Now this is a first novel so you can expect a bit of rambling. I must admit to a preference for first novels that cover only a short time frame, and which have a plot that motors along. Leave the philosophical digressions for subsequent novels when you have the basic tools down pat. Trim, taut and terrific is what we're after. Not bloated excess. Three Dollars doesn't reach those depths, but a bit more off the edges might have fixed it up a bit.

All in all, the book is pretty good. You can tell that Perlman has something to say, some experiences to impart and can outline a good set of characters, though there are times when all you want to do is to give them a good clip under the ear-'ole and tell 'em to get on with it. Hopefully that will come with later works.

I have one major gripe though, and it will require a bit of plot outline, and a bit of a spoiler. Not a big one. This isn't a crime novel after all and, anyway, the outcome of the bit I'm going to write about is featured in the movie trailers doing the rounds.

Eddie, the novel's protagonist, is married to Tanya, they have a two-year-old daughter Abby, and their friend Kate is staying with them. Kate has recently split from her husband and is trying to sort her life out, and has basically settled into the household. On the night in question, Tanya is away - doesn't matter where - Abby is sick with what appears to be the flu, and Eddie and Kate proceed to get mildly drunk. One thing leads to another, clothing is removed, fumbling occurs, but the situation doesn't get totally out of hand before both parties release the error of their ways, back off, apologise, and retire to their separate beds. Sometime during the night, Abby's condition worsens and she has a "fit".

Yeah, so? What's with that? Well, in my view, it's a very poor literary technique when the author decides to punish the main character for straying slightly off the path the author has chosen.

As a reader you have to assume the writer is in control. He puts the words on the pages after all. It's okay for an author to say that a character determines their own behaviour, that they take on a life of their own, but when something happens in the novel that is totally outside the character's control and which affects them profoundly, then we have to assume it's down to the author. The other thing we can assume is that if the same set of characters appear in two consecutive scenes then whatever happens in the second scene is as a direct result of the first. So here we have Eddie almost perform a marital indiscretion in the first scene and then his child almost dies in the second. How can we think anything other than that Eddie is being punished?

I'm willing to put this down as a fault with a first novel and move on. There is enough here for me to be willing to try out his latest work, even given the treatment it received from various critics. I hope he has better faith and trust in his characters, however.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 19, 2005 8:47 PM.

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