OR: Timoleon Vieta Come Home

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 15th of July last year:-

I’ve reviewed three books by Dan Rhodes, the last of which was Little Hands Clapping back in Black Static #20. Today’s case study, TIMOLEON VIETA COME HOME (Canongate tpb, 305pp, £7.99), was released in 2010 and originally published in 2003 (it was Rhodes’ first novel), so I’m only nine or sixteen years late to the party depending on your timescale of choice.

This tale of a man and his best friend is set in Italy and pitches us a blackly comedic version of tearjerker par excellence Lassie Come Home. At some points it gets very black indeed (trigger warning – dog lovers or those who get upset at the thought of animals suffering, might do well to avoid this book).

Composer Cockcroft lives in an isolated house in the Italian countryside, surviving on royalties and investments in the wake of his career crash. His most loyal companion is mongrel dog Timoleon Vieta, while a procession of young men wander into and out of his life. One day the Bosnian arrives, a handsome stranger who takes advantage of Cockcroft’s standing offer of accommodation for sexual favours, but there is something decidedly sinister and nasty about the man, though a Cockcroft who is afraid of being left alone is persuaded to ignore any misgivings. The Bosnian does not get along with Timoleon Vieta, and so the pair drive to distant Rome and abandon the dog on the street.

This situation is set up in the first one hundred and twenty pages of the book, with the second section consisting of a series of short stories concerning the lives of people who are touched by Timoleon Vieta on his long journey home, each one titled by the name they give to the dog. In the brief ‘Abbondio’ the dog encounters a kind hearted policeman who wants to take him home to his wife. As ‘Teg’ he crosses the path of a young Welsh woman who has come to Rome to be with her Italian boyfriend, only to discover that he is only interested in her for the sex. He is seen at a funeral in ‘Something Chinese’, the back story one of love striking suddenly and death following on with even more speed. ‘Guiseppe, Or Leonardo Da Vinci’ is the story of a fated love affair between a gifted girl and a wayward boy, the whole given an almost mythic backdrop in the form of local legend. As ‘Dusty’ the dog distracts a loving father from attending to his ailing daughter, with dire consequences. ‘Henri’ is a tale of exile and love, both returned and unrequited.

Simmering away in the background while Timoleon Vieta undertakes his odyssey is the framing narrative, with news flash style interjections concerning Cockcroft’s remorse, and the back story to his fall from grace, with an aside or two about the past of the Bosnian, all of which sets the stage for everything to come together in final story ‘Timbo’.

This is a book that eludes easy classification. The style of the writing put me very much in mind of Vonnegut at his most laid back, but while it is ostensibly a comedy what we get of humour is rooted in the personality of the main character Cockcroft. He is almost a parody of the camp homosexual, like Jack from Will and Grace grown into an old, sad and somewhat bitter man. While his problems are largely self-inflicted, arising out of desperation and emotional nullity, with a large side order of self-guilt and inability to handle alcohol, he is a larger than life personality, one that is ideally constructed for the Bosnian to take advantage. Though Cockcroft is both true to himself and slightly risible, the latter’s attempts to go against his nature and play the hard man lead to the creation of a monster, one whose true perfidy is revealed only in the book’s final pages.

Added to this are all the other stories, each of them thoroughly engrossing, giving us much of life and love, an ethnically diverse cast and situations that seem entirely natural regardless of how fantastic they are in the abstract. Each story is a wonderful vignette on human nature, but while leaning towards the sentimental they steer clearly away from the saccharine. Rhodes is willing, one might even say eager, to break the prevailing mood of a story by throwing another moment of horror at the page, be it sudden death or mutilation, and as the narrative progresses and Timoleon Vieta’s corporeality fades these incidents grow ever more grotesque and horrific. All of which primes us for the final act of violence, one that seems both an inevitable conclusion to what has gone before and yet at the same time totally unexpected.

The final pages of this book, in which none of the main characters are commendable or even likable much, are heartrending as Cockcroft and his newly rediscovered best friend set off to paint the town red on their own terms, totally oblivious to what has taken place elsewhere. The ending brutally captures the shallowness of Cockcroft and his indifference to anything that isn’t right in front of his face and offering him pleasure of one kind or another, and as such he is emblematic of the narcissistic personality type.

Timoleon Vieta Come Home is a book with few qualms, and all the better for this lack, though it won’t appeal to everyone, or even many. The author refers to the book as “A Sentimental Journey”, but I suspect irony, as it is anything but.

Accompanying the text are Vien Thuc’s paintings of dogs, which in their defiant blackness and blocky solidity capture perfectly the spirit of that outcast and lovable mongrel Timoleon Vieta.

I wonder if Dan Rhodes owns a dog. I hope he does, though I’m a cat person myself.

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