Morals are taught & preached not for the sake of heaven, but to assist those people on earth who have everything they need & more to retain their possessions & to help them accumulate still more. Morals is the butter for those who have no bread.
— B. Traven
CHARMING SOCIOPATHS: their laughter echoes down the dark corridor of our imaginaries. Think of Jay Gatsby, Harry Lime, Tom Ripley. Think back to Melville’s The Confidence-Man, forward to Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper. They are advantaged by a lack of conscience. Untethered from burdensome ties of empathy, they roam the world, as compelling as they are manipulative.
But this is only half the story. For every Harry Lime, there’s a Holly Martins; for every Tom Ripley, a Jonathan Zimmermann. Each Gatsby has his Nick Carraway, which is to say, the innocent who — fascinated, enthralled — is swept up in the mad, charismatic dance. And then: finds himself on the road to perdition.
The phrase “finds himself,” of course, always conceals a massive self-deception — again and again, the victim proves to be not quite so innocent. This is the theme so adroitly explored in Tom Lutz’s most excellent debut novel, Born Slippy.
Though told in the third person, Born Slippy shows us the world as seen through the eyes of Frank Baltimore. He’s a Connecticut handyman turned carpenter turned home contractor with commitment issues and an admirable shelf of 20th-century literature. (Frank is a particular fan of Henry James’s The Ambassadors, that signature novel of Americans behaving badly abroad.) Frank is in some sense an everyman, if you define everyman as alienated and white and male. He has modest virtues and modest vices; and if he has ambitions — he’d want, one day, to sail around the world on his own boat — he’s more slacker than striver. You might think that you’ve met him before, perhaps in a story by Jonathan Raymond or Raymond Carver, but as Born Slippy progresses, Frank becomes more lived-in: specific, individuated, discrete. And finally, Frank comes to live within us, his uncertainties, his fears, his acts of bad faith queasily mirroring our own.
Frank Baltimore’s foil — his Ripley, his Lime — is one Dmitry Heald of Liverpool, just 18 at the time we meet him, a peripatetic Scouser with a teenager’s pipe dreams and an adult’s mastery of avoiding responsibility. He’s one loquacious son-of-a-bitch, and Lutz renders his monologues deftly, in all their loopy glory:
You don’t understand, Franky. He’s not a man you ask questions. It’s not a psychological thing — well, it is psychological I suppose, but not about my psychology, and not his exactly — even if you intend to ask him a question, one look at him and your realize you can’t, any more than you could ask a tree, or a cow … I mean you can, after all, ask him what time it is or whether he would mind passing the butter. You just can’t ask him a real question. It’s as if some force field surrounds him that transmogrifies every serious query into, Looks like rain to you? — or no, not even that, that’s too ominous: Right then? That’s all you can ask. His answer, ineluctably, is Yes, right, then. I’m not kidding, Franky. Somehow, alchemically, or like an invisible centrifuge taking your words and separating out all their meaning, conversation is drained of content. Right, then?
Frank and Dmitry work together on building houses — Frank ostensibly the boss, but of course it’s the other hand holding the whip. In ways that we all of us ruefully understand, it’s Dmitry who makes the messes, with Frank (or as Dmitry incessantly calls him, Franky) left to clean ’em up. Yet it’s a relationship that is in its own way as satisfying to Frank as it is to Dmitry, if not more so. One might even say “perversely satisfying,” but that would be to deny Frank’s clear-eyed agency as he becomes further and further enmeshed in Dmitry’s impossible schemes.
The novel spans the period of time from 2000 to 2017, a more-than-sizable chunk of our current era. It’s not retailed in strict chronological order: Lutz deploys a flashback structure that allows us to see some of the consequences of Frank’s choices, before he does. But the main current of the story carries us from the (perhaps) excusable errors of youth to the (perhaps) inexcusable errors of maturity, at the same time taking us from New England to Los Angeles to Taipei to Djakarta to Tokyo — and well beyond.
Aside from his editorship of this publication, and his work as chair of the UC Riverside Creative Writing program, Lutz is perhaps best known as an astute and observant travel writer: see his Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World: Wandering the Globe from Azerbaijan to Zanzibar, or his And the Monkey Learned Nothing: Dispatches from a Life in Transit, both published in 2016. As with most modern travel writers (I’m thinking here of Redmond O’Hanlon, Rory Nugent, Bruce Chatwin), we’re less offered up snapshots than urged to consider the complex skein that entangles subject and photographer. Urged to consider, at the same time, the wanderlust of the chronicler: what’s being sought, what’s being fled.
Though Lutz’s previous journeys inform this fiction, they don’t overwhelm it. The locales in Born Slippy, mundane and “exotic,” from the back roads of Connecticut to the alleyways of Golden Gai, are in each instance consummately described — yet the landscape is used to reflect character, not as spectacle in and of itself. As much as I admire Lutz’s chronicles and essays (on early 1900s neurasthenia; on those who dedicate their lives to doing nothing; a cultural history of crying), it feels as if the novel may be the form that allows him to deploy his wisdom most expansively. Born Slippy is rich in place, character, incident, but at the same time turns out to be the fullest expression of Lutz’s (canny; wry; informed) voice.
Without stepping on the delights of discovering the plot for yourself, I think I can safely tell you that Dmitry, improbably and irresistibly, becomes wealthy beyond dreams of avarice; that money of this kind is never made cleanly; and that chickens of any provenance will eventually come home to roost. Born Slippy traverses these turns so well that as we go from rural Connecticut to decidedly non-rural Asia, from wood-frame homes to manses with guard gates, from rustbucket motorhomes to private jets, we never feel a soul-delay any greater than that of the characters. Along the way we’re immersed in a world of (corrupt; corrupting) international finance, the dirty dance of assets across all-too-porous borders. Lutz’s lucid descriptions of the world of late capitalism — might we even say, after-hours capitalism? — energize the book’s pages. (Dmitry is a man who, tired of waiting in line for his morning coffee, buys the corner Starbucks.) The novel finds its fullest momentum as it plunges us into the transnational migration of large, ill-gotten gains, and the consequences of such for both an all-too-knowing Dmitry and an all-too-clueless Frank. Imagine, if you will, a version of the Panama Papers as redacted by Patricia Highsmith: the transit of money in one direction and guilt in the other.
While never abandoning the bildungsroman, the last third of Born Slippy — the name comes from a popular song by Underworld, and is herein repurposed as the password to an offshore bank account — pulls us fully into thriller territory. And while that takes the string of an occasionally shaggy-dog narrative and pulls it taut, it introduces other artifacts, the concomitant tropes of genre. As the book stretches toward its finale, we’re introduced to a box of incriminating papers locked in the attic, a pair of Mutt-and-Jeff cops, a drugged cocktail, and — all too canonically — a flawless Asian femme fatale. These may simply come with the territory, but they feel less finely limned than the people and places we met while the novel was building its head of steam.
Frank finds himself, or “finds himself,” in unknown lands, uncharted waters, pursuing the mysteries of Dmitry’s death in the bombing of Credit Lyonnais’s office building in Taipei. It is here that he finds within himself reserves of courage and sagacity that he’d never before tapped: or, perhaps, these qualities were created, existentially, at the instant of need. In a turn that (plot spoiler) will blindside no one who’s seen The Third Man or read The Long Goodbye, Dmitry reappears, just in time to hold up a mirror, in which Frank comes to see his own queasy complicity.
It’s not good to be too happy. It’s like having too much money. And if you have too much money it’s because you have taken it from someone else.
— B. Traven
We come to understand that while the Englishman Dmitry is the most fascinating character in Born Slippy, the novel ultimately belongs to the American friend. His journey has the longest span: from lost to found, from a man oblivious to the consequences of his actions to a man all too aware of them.
As it approaches its close, the novel tacks from James to Conrad, following Frank from foreign land to foreign sea. Perhaps the ocean will grant him his redemption; perhaps he’ll forever be adrift. Lutz shows him to us with both clarity and compassion, sparing no insight even as he withholds judgment. Ultimately, the triumph of the novel is the way that it makes us, too, complicit with its protagonists. And in learning to forgive them, we may even learn to forgive ourselves.
Howard A. Rodman is the author of The Great Eastern, a lavish 19th-century anticolonial adventure novel published in June 2019 from Melville House. He also wrote the films Joe Gould’s Secret, Savage Grace, and August, and the novel Destiny Express. Rodman is past president of the Writers Guild of America West, and a professor in the writing division of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.