LAUGHING BOY by M.B. Blissett
Norwich-based stand-up Tommy Martin, no stranger to panel shows, is attempting to understand and connect with his teen daughter Penny since the death of his wife. Resigned to sarcastic comebacks and the increase of male attention she is attracting, he starts a relationship with flirtatious redhead modern artist Evelyn that seems to transcend its tentative first steps (over the semi-skimmed milk at the supermarket) and his dating anxiety (eating ribs on a first date?). Meanwhile, a series of odd events confirms his wife is intrusively making her presence felt from beyond the grave.
M.B. Blissett’s sophomore novel (after UNTIL SHE SINGS) is an uncommonly witty and poignant modern ghost story pivoting around a relatable, not always likeable single father / minor celebrity bouncing back from a drink problem. He’s at an age where he’s more self-conscious about Googling ear hair remover than his prodigious porn consumption. With pleasure centres stuck in the 90s and a trusty leather recliner for “sullen masculine anaesthesia”, he’s a guy for whom a conventional horror story “haunting” mostly means coming to terms with pent up resentment at his dead wife for not being around. In some of the most absorbing scenes, he’s also finally becoming aware that the deceptively tiny, intimate moments spent with Penny are more overpowering than his appreciation of a sell-out crowd at a gig or a line of coke. Since the story is written from Tommy’s perspective, he’s also an excuse for Blissett to unleash an array of pop culture touchstones for readers of a certain age and sensibility, the loveliest of which is “I mentally thanked John Waters (much as we all should)”.
The novel achieves moments of quiet emotional power, from authentically random flashbacks to Penny as a m baby to the realisation of how she was genuinely hurt by his references to her school play in one of his routines. An engagingly offbeat angle to the conventional haunting scenario (note the kamikaze pigeon) and the rich vein of caustic humour enhance, rather than undermine, the overall impact. Tommy’s lament at this wife not returning as the blow-job ghost from GHOSTBUSTERS is a simultaneously hilarious and oddly touching sentiment. Although there is a spectacularly gruesome art gallery set piece worthy of an OMEN sequel, this novel is as much about a flawed guy with endless regrets about being too busy honing his jokes to pay attention to his daughter’s favourite cereal. It pays off with a climactic spin on the familiar protagonist-venturing-into-the-unknown genre gambit – offering a potent emotional exorcism via a bile-ridden nightmare stand-up routine of things unsaid. Plus, an enjoyable dollop of Lynchian backwards-talk.
Review by Steven West