"Volume one of an odd boy is a memoir of an eccentric aficionado of Bach and Blues, poetry and painting. A portrait of the artist as a lad, set in the experimental cultural ferment of the late 1960s. It is a coming-of-age adventure, both surreal and innocent, humorous and poignant, depicting an era when the Arts set a generation’s imagination on fire. The author’s life is a rare roulette wheel of childhood wonder and tragic debacles; a debilitating stammer and a powerful singing voice; bad luck and fierce good fortune."
With its intriguing premise and a title that seems deliberately designed to provoke an "I'll be the judge of that" reaction from would-be readers of this autobiographical debut, it is perhaps not difficult to see why people might be inclined to pick up a copy of An Odd Boy, especially since it is available in the convenience of ebook format first and foremost, following the increasing trend of today's book market.
However, it is perhaps more difficult to see how or why readers might justifiably continue reading, given how far the novel is littered with minor irritations. The disjointed and patronising preface could probably be ditched altogether, and its tone of pretension unfortunately sets the tone for the rest of the book, with the text continually interspersed with quotations from various famous personages. Even naive young potential university students are not advised to write their personal statement in this way - in most cases, readers just want to hear the author's own words. Irrelevant information is often given, content is at times unoriginal (I did wonder if he was just trying to bring out his own version of Jonathan Coe's Rotters' Club, and failing), and the author is inclined to tell rather than show, making characterisation at times rather one-dimensional.
The narrator also tries to portray himself as a victim, but since he is too pretentious to be taken seriously, sympathy is in short supply. While his assessment (and others' assessments) of himself as an "odd boy" may well be correct, I'm not sure that his eccentricities merit an entire book on the subject. It is narcissistic; the portrayal of malapropisms used by others is unsuccessful in terms of trying to amuse; and, furthermore, the author also seems to think name-dropping will make up for his own (and his book's own) shortcomings (it doesn't). But this is not the worst of it: the entirely unnecessary footnotes are full of patronising remarks, such as the consideration that readers may not know who Evelyn Waugh was, what various British slang words mean, what the BBC is, or what 78s are. It is not, in my view, an author's job to explain the vocabulary that they use - rather, it is the reader's job to grab a dictionary or encyclopaedia and find out for themselves.
Perhaps worse is the sheer amount of typographical, geographical, and other types of error that permeate this book. Punctuation and italics are often poorly used, spelling mistakes include misspelling the name of the band Dire Straits (which is more than a little ironic considering how much music is supposed to mean to the author) and the word "whet" in the phrase "whet whistles", and grammatical errors include such horrors as "had forbade". The geographical mistake mentioned is in fact crucial to the narrative being presented - given that Borehamwood, Berkhamsted and so on are in Hertfordshire, not Herefordshire as maintained by the author, perhaps this explains why his searches for Alice were in vain?
It is clear from this, and especially also from chapter four, that significant cuts to this book are required, which makes it extremely surprising that ISBN numbers are provided on the book's flyleaf for both paperback and hardback editions of the book, as well as for the ebook. None of this does anything to help the ailing reputation of e-publishing (which suggests that there is still a lot of work to be done on the industry as a whole before it can pose a genuine future alternative for readers the world over).
In spite of all of the criticisms above, however, An Odd Boy is not a totally unenjoyable read. While the idyllic image with which we are presented in chapter one is on the schmaltzy side, it brings with it something slightly portentous: the union of the two people described surely cannot be as perfect as we are led to believe or presumably there would be no book, so the perfection described is perhaps intended to signal a future deficit thereof. It is amusing in places, especially when it comes to discussions on the topic of God and religion, the bond between the author and Mr Love is genuinely touching and meaningful, and the author's excitement at being introduced to the Blues is clearly palpable (and not only that, but infectious, making the reader want to start listening to this music just as obsessively).
The work of Doc Togden is certainly much more engaging when he is showing us a more relaxed or honest view of his personality, rather than when he is trying to project a superficial and pseudo-intellectual version. Even though the text becomes at times egotistical and over-venerated, the interspersions get worse (with terrible teenage poetry added), and he tries to dress up his objectification of women as being somehow noble (when in fact he's just being a normal red-blooded male), the novel is infinitely better once the author gets over the illusion of his own precocity, and it is an easy read which is increasingly engrossing as the characters become more developed.
An Odd Boy therefore certainly has potential, even if it is as times badly expressed by a man who has clearly been told all of his life that he is brilliant and intellectual, only to never realise that there are others in the world who are just as intelligent (and, indeed, even more intelligent) than he is. All in all a satisfying read which ultimately feels unfinished; an editor needs to take a red pen and some scissors to it, and quickly.