STUFF by Henry Sutton. (Serpent’s
Tail) Fiction, 2004. 252 pages. What makes you want to read
something? (Hell, why are you
reading this now?) Maybe you
want to be entertained, or possibly learn something. The promise of
titillating sexual content can also be a motivator. Think about the
teasers that jump out from all those women’s magazines staring you down
while you’re queued up in the supermarket checkout line: 12
bedroom moves that will have him begging for more!
Are you a size queen?!? Taste
better [down there]! (Okay,
that last one is probably a bit unlikely, but you know what I mean). I’m
not even the target audience for this sensationalism, but sometimes I
can’t help myself from taking a little peak at it. Even better is a look
behind the curtain at someone’s innermost, totally exposed, raw feelings
and desires, and the more unflattering to that someone, the better, right?
Henry Sutton’s Kids’ Stuff especially fits this last category.
We get to see the fascinating and painful inner workings of Mark,
an often angry, high-strung Englishman who has an exceedingly hard time
turning his feelings into words. Mark
reminds me a lot of the guy in Billy Bragg’s “Little Time Bomb” (off
his classic 1988 release, Workers Playtime), a frustrated lout who feels manipulated and
completely outthought by the fair sex, yet is hopelessly in need of them
Mark, a carpenter and odd-jobsman, has built a
cozy life with his hot, successful wife Nicole and their young daughter,
the princess-like Gemma. He’d been pretty much able to block out his
turbulent past and focus on his current life when he receives a phone call
from Kim, his psycho ex-wife. Ten
years earlier Kim had disappeared with her and Mark’s then-three year
old daughter Lily. While this
sudden loss of contact with his little girl bothered Mark, part of him was
relieved that he didn’t have to deal with her or her mother anymore.
Kim’s call serves as the catalyst to bring her, and especially
Lily, catapulting into Mark and his little family’s fortressed lives
with a vengeance. Thirteen
year old Lily is surly, pierced, tattooed, swears like a sailor, drinks
like a fish and claims to have been the recipient of many sexual advances
during her traveling days with her mother.
Not surprisingly, she’s also quite unstable. Her occasional
visits- and soon her very existence- put a huge strain on Mark and
Nicole’s relationship. This situation triggers a series of flashbacks
about Mark’s painful family life, particularly his serious issues with
his own parents. There are
obvious parallels between Mark and his elder daughter, and it’s grimly
intriguing to watch them as they both come completely unhinged. By the
time this tale comes roaring off the tracks, I felt great empathy for Mark
while still realizing I wouldn’t want to spend very much time with him
in any sort of social situation. He’s
frequently an outraged, petty prick who in many ways embodies all of our
baser natures. I could see little glimpses of myself in him, and I
didn’t like it too much.
Sutton is a skillful, insightful
writer. His prose is hard-hitting and to the point (the book’s chapters
are often only 2 to 3 pages long, but the pacing is perfect).
Among other things, Kids’ Stuff asks to what extent can you blame your problems on
your family; when do you grow up and start taking responsibility for your
own actions? And even if you
don’t care to address these issues, Sutton is such a great storyteller
that you’ll be entertained at the very least. You might also learn
something or be sexually titillated (and there actually are some naughty
parts), and you’ll definitely get an unflinching, captivating look at
the mind of a decidedly imperfect character.
This could make you feel better about yourself- or worse- but
either way, this book is very much worth reading. –Ben Hunter