Ethan Grout, a novel, by Matt Howard

For a book whose main concern is superficiality, Ethan Grout is, ahem, a little superficial.

After a shaky start which teams vague detail with some just plain lazy writing, Howard finds his stride in comic banter between colleagues at Ethan Grout’s new job as a bookbuyer for a large retail chain (write what you know is the saying, and Howard has worked as a book buyer for Angus and Robertson). Here he is placed in a ‘pod’ with airheads ‘Brhe’ who is as soft in the head as the cheese she is misspelt after, and Ingrid. It is with Alejandra that Ethan really bonds, finding truth in his deceased father’s outlook on life: that it has many reincarnations and that you should hold onto one or two special people from each job.
Alejandra is a sarcastic cynic who is clearly ‘real people’. She and Ethan bond over cheeky asides during sales meetings and cigarette breaks that go much like this: 
Airhead Ingrid makes what she thinks is a cutting remark:” ‘He just pulled this bit of material out of his pocket, emptied his nose into it and put it back inside his pocket!’
‘Handkerchief,’ Alejandra says. ‘That’s called a handkerchief.’ ”

Alejandra has, much to Ethan’s annoyance, a long-term boyfriend who, much to Ethan’s elation, isn’t very nice and harps on about her weight.  But he’s not the only one. The book continually points out the fact that Alejandra is overweight, just as it harps on some other themes repetitively. The themes don’t evolve very far.

Though this is, in parts, laugh-out-loud witty, it’s also quite predictable and often mundane. It takes something like this from Nick Earl’s Bachelor Kisses; 

‘Sunny Garden Keno requires participants to order based only on the last two digits of the number plate of a passing car chosen at random. It’s how we found Number 34, Kun Po chicken, now one of our regulars. It’s also how we discovered that Number 97 is Large Steamed Rice. ” …
and makes it more ordinary. Ethan Grout orders a number 52 on the menu of his favourite Chinese takeaway until a death at the end of the novel prompts him to choose a number at random without looking. Fascinating. Deja vu anyone? Or is this an homage to Bachelor Kisses?

The structure of Ethan Grout, which (spoiler warning) begins and ends with a death, begins with a search, ends with something found, is attacked in a fairly unoriginal way by Howard. In places it made me positively mad that it wasn’t going into any unfamiliar territory, because Howard is clearly a decent writer with a flair for dialogue who simply isn’t pushing himself far enough. This made it feel, confusingly, like a lightweight YA novel trying to be ladlit, written presumably for the 18-30 bracket.

This is a good read if you’re holidaying in Melbourne, where Ethan Grout is mostly set, if you work as a bookbuyer in a large corporation, or if you want a lighthearted chuckle. Otherwise, maybe wait for the new Nick Earls.
Due out in August

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~ by ConsanguineousMind on June 18, 2010.

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