Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Stepping Out by Steven Boykey Sidley

Stepping Out is not you average midlife-crisis novel. Our protagonist Harold Cummings is in his sixties, and his crisis does not consist of getting a much younger mistress and a new Jaguar. After attending the funeral of the his teenage best friend and hero, the retired Harold realizes that he has done everything right in his life. He was the goodie-two-shoes who never partied too hard, got into fights, tried drugs or slept around. When Harold's wife Millie goes to visit her sick sister, Harold's subconscious decides it is time to do something about his situation. Downtown here we come.

Harold's escapades gradually escalate from peeking at a naked girl through the fence, to getting a tattoo and trying crack. With every downwards step, Harold realizes that he is getting less and less afraid. His increasingly frequent visits downtown, to a world he never knew before, is making him bolder and giving him a feeling of accomplishment his many years of "being good" simply can't compete with. But sooner than Harold could have anticipated, his "experiments" catch up with him. His tolerant neighbour and confidante Shawnee wants to hear no more about his wild exploits. Friends who have never seen Harold drunk phone Millie out of worry. And a dinner with a prostitute turns out to have repercussions no one could have anticipated. The lies are piling up around Harold, and the way out is getting harder and harder to see.

Stepping Out is a funny novel, but perhaps I'm too young to laugh out loud at Harold as he squeezes into clothes made for someone 40 years younger whilst quoting gangster lines from old movies. It's almost like I find Harold more sad than anything. He's desperately trying to make up for a lifetime of being boring. And we learn along the way that part of his desperation comes out of a longing to leave something behind. His two adult children are long fled, and their relationship amounts to very little. However, through his experiments, it is almost as if Harold perhaps finds a way to communicate with his daughter again.

What I really enjoyed about this novel is that you never really know what to expect. There were new surprises around each corner, and Millie was probably the biggest one. I was a bit perplexed that the novel is set in the USA, despite the fact that the author is South African. Sidley seems to join Andre Brink and J M Coetzee in having a preoccupation with old men lamenting their lost youth. 


Unknown said...

Hi Sigrid - thanks for your thoughtful review of my book Stepping Out. Just wanted you to know that I am an American citizen, and spent 17 years in LA, before coming back to SA. So I have have one foot here and one foot there, so to speak - hence US locales for both of my first 2 books (and the third, coming up next year). But definitely an SA novel soon.

Thank you for reading.


Sigrid said...

Aha, that makes sense then! Thanks for letting me know, and good luck with the books :)