The trick Steven Boykey Sidley got right in his first book, Entanglement, and has continued to refine via second release Stepping Out and through to this third effort, is to make small dramas feel extravagantly exciting and involving.
All of his books involve men who are struggling with being men, a condition that, described in bald, dry terms like that, sounds painfully dull. Sidley understands that it’s not. He swears in interviews that he’s not as much the writing-as-therapy type as many of his peers, but his protagonist in Imperfect Solo, Joshua Meyer, is a Los Angeles-based, saxophone-playing software engineer – all boxes that the author has or continues to tick – and it’s not unreasonable as a reader to suspect that there’s a fairly hefty chunk of Sidley in his character.
Whether that’s true or not impacts not a jot on the reader’s enjoyment of the book, though, as Meyer’s journey, which begins with him wallowing in dread and takes him through hell before he experiences a little Grace (both a proper noun and an abstract concept in this case) and a glimpse of redemption is laced with humour, sharp observations and pure, simple beauty when it comes to the use of words.
Much of the time, it’s “only” as good as descriptions of individuals – “She is logorrhoeic, words tumbling out of her mouth, subjects careening off each other, tangential thoughts exploding from nowhere, inappropriate giggles bursting forth from phrases without humour” – when talking about the arrival of Meyer’s son’s girlfriend. She’s a girl who could far more simply but far less satisfyingly be described as like, being, like an airhead, you know? But that’s the point: Sidley takes what could conceivably be banal and makes it rich, dense and luxuriant.
It’s unashamedly intellectual stuff, but dark humour is regularly woven through the narrative, and there’s warmth too, chiefly in the form of Meyer’s close friend Farzad, a portly Iranian psychologist who is a sounding board, shoulder to cry on and mentor of sorts. He’s one of the most delightful literary creations of recent years, combining wisdom with cheerful vulgarity and an ability to plough on through any interruption until his point is properly made. When some equally wise producer decides to make this book into a film, Farzad will be the plum role. (Incidentally, I hope Omid Djalili gets it).
Music, relationships, figuring out what’s worth it and what’s not: all of the base material for Meyer’s story is amorphous and difficult to get a handle on. But in Sidley’s hands, it’s somehow both a rip-roaring yarn and a sensitive study of a man going through a complex mid-life crisis.