This 'Ladder To The Sky' Is Grounded In The Dirty Depths John Boyne's new novel is about a literary schemer, striver and climber so dastardly and downright cruel that it seems impossible to enjoy reading about him — and yet, you definitely will.
NPR logo This 'Ladder To The Sky' Is Grounded In The Dirty Depths

Review

Book Reviews

This 'Ladder To The Sky' Is Grounded In The Dirty Depths

"A man's worth is no greater than his ambitions," opined Marcus Aurelius centuries ago, and John Boyne's new trickster protagonist Maurice Swift would surely agree. Swift, the central character of A Ladder to the Sky — whose high self-worth makes Gore Vidal look like Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle — has great ambitions.

Swift wants to be the pre-eminent writer of his time. Perhaps even of all time, but even he knows that isn't within his control; as he tells a wise and world-weary Vidal (Yes! The writer himself appears) during a visit to the novelist's villa on the Amalfi Coast, "You're a significant figure in twentieth-century literature. You'll be remembered." In the war of words between the two men, that manages to feel like the unkindest cut.

That section of the novel acts as a kind of fulcrum. Before Gore (as Vidal is referred to), Maurice Swift is the kind of lovely, sensuous young man beloved of all regardless of orientation or gender. He is also a literary up-and-comer whose breakout debut Two Germans just happens (according to him) to have been based on the real-life stories of his sugar daddy Erich Ackermann. After Gore, he will take a darker turn, showing us just how high he wants his ladder to reach.

A Ladder to the Sky opens with the 65-year-old Ackermann's account of their relationship, which spans two years in Berlin and other world capitals. Ackermann, a famed novelist, pursues his own career while unwittingly providing the basis for Swift's. The latter takes stories of Ackermann's proto-Nazi youth and wartime activities and churns them into his own blend. Of course, as Swift mounts the rungs of his ambitious ladder, he kicks his mentor down a few: Before you can say "Nobel Prize," Ackermann has been relegated to the category of "Fascist authors" and Swift has moved on to his next victim.

Which isn't a spoiler. Each division of the book includes sections narrated by Swiftian victims, a few even by Swift himself (and he may be one of the former, too). Boyne's mastery of perspective, last seen in 2017's The Heart's Invisible Furies, works beautifully here. We know from the get-go that Maurice Swift has few scruples, but as each character emerges — Ackermann, a second-rate novelist named Dash Hardy, Vidal, Swift's talented wife Edith, his son Daniel, a would-be Swift biographer — we understand that a ladder to the sky may be grounded in dark, brimstone-y muck.

In the past few decades it's become fashionable shorthand to brand a self-interested and self-satisfied person a narcissist. John Boyne understands that it's far more interesting and satisfying for a reader to see that narcissist in action than to be told a catchall phrase. Each step Maurice Swift takes skyward reveals a new layer of calumny he's willing to engage in, and the desperation behind it. As he says just before what might be his worst crime: "And at that moment I understood only too clearly that it was him or me ... I was a writer, for f***'s sake. I was born to be a writer. No one would ever take that away from me."

However, the author also understands there's no need to explain the desperation away with a traumatic childhood or unhappy love life (although we are left to wonder if his lifelong wish to be a father involves some kind of deep lacuna, we aren't left much time to wonder, carry on!). Maurice inhabits a wickedly cruel space: He's a writer whose prose flows ... but he has no ideas. No stories. No plots. No characters. No atmosphere. When he attempts to release his own work, his books bomb. If he's going to publish successfully — and he certainly will! — he'll have to keep finding ideas to steal, and that means acting quite the literary slut. He even founds a magazine called Storī so that he can siphon off slush-pile submissions and use them crazy-quilt style in concocting new work.

Before Gore, Maurice Swift is a user. After Gore, Maurice Swift engages in at least two acts so dark it seems almost impossible to enjoy reading A Ladder to the Sky as much as you definitely will enjoy reading it. The book's title derives from the proverb "Ambition is putting a ladder to the sky," meaning not simply that it's impossible, but that the fall is a long one. John Boyne's ambition in writing a comic novel about a nasty writer — that's nothing new. But John Boyne's ambition in writing a comic novel about a nasty writer with no scruples who never repents that will make you chuckle morbidly until the last line? That's ambition fulfilled.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.