Secrets of Men in a Lifeboat
Todd R. Baker
Aqueous Books, 2016
The Californian novel is a queer thing. It is at once myopic and vast, navel-gazing and prescient, trivial and heartrending. When I think about novels like this I invariably call to mind Bruce Wagner. For me (and I suspect millions of other Americans), California is Southern California is Los Angeles. Wagner is able to blend in his novels the the Hollywood esprit, the fetish for noir, and genuine literary skill. It’s unfair for that to be my litmus for other fiction in this ephemeral genre I’ve identified.
It’s unfair because it leads me to say this: Todd Baker is no Bruce Wagner. But how meaningful is that? And is it even really a comparison of any meaningful import or mild astuteness? Baker’s novel, Secrets of Men in a Lifeboat, is a strange fish. It mines the kind of insider mentality that imbues Wagner’s work but the kind of insider-ness we encounter isn’t Hollywood or really even California; it’s that of superficial business, i.e., entrepreneurship.
Todd Baker’s first novel possesses its own voice and tells its tale in its own manner. It stands independent of direct comparison as a confident debut.
California, advertising, various tech bubbles, and venture capital is the milieu from which emerges the story of a man split in two. Baker writes a novel of one man, Luke Morrow, as he experiences two distinct version of his own life. The first part of the novel gives us Luke in rather dire straits. He is divorced and struggling to keep the upper middle-class lifestyle he’s come to expect for himself. Luke travels within a cohort of unapologetic whiteness wherein financial success is equated with moral worth and merit is a treasured myth. As an advertising executive, he finds himself pushed out by younger versions of himself. This comes on the heels of failing to make the millions Luke’s class felt entitled to during the first tech bubble of the late 90s. We encounter Luke not so much shattered or shattering, not a failure or failing, but as a man who is profoundly unsettled.
You could call Baker’s novel a type of men’s fiction. If you were less charitable, dick lit. Although much effort is expended to make us feel the Luke of the first half of the novel is a “lovable loser,” the fact is he is only half this. The Luke Morrow of the first half of the novel reeks of a George Costanza-like indignant shame. Luke is not lovable though a loser. But it would be too easy and superficial to credit Luke’s loser-y-ness to simply being unsuccessful at being a rich white man. Luke has talents, has skills, and with them achieves success. The simple fact is that nothing Luke experiences satisfies him. He is constantly yearning for a kind of privilege that he can’t name but feels he is deserved.
All of this makes Luke’s interactions with his son Trevor more problematic. We are presented with Luke and his son in order to see just how good of a dad Luke is despite his financial setbacks. Yet Luke isn’t a good father. He does the bare minimum to entertain his son when his son is around. And even then, the time he spends with his son is rarely endearing. In fact, Baker seems to boil their interactions down to a series of Q & A’s.
The same is true for nearly every aspect of Luke’s love life, which is endlessly riffed on. Luke is a shitty person and more than a bit of an asshole. There isn’t a single depiction in the novel of any woman character that isn’t either demeaning or hostile. Even in his tenderest moments, Luke is an unrepentant egoist who vacillates between benign sexism and open misogyny.
But this is all part of the kind of man that Luke is, the failed entrepreneur. This perhaps lesser used trope is one that is nearly exclusively white, male, and upper middle-class; it is, for many and most, the default setting for masculinity. But it seethes under the skin. Baker is able to take this man to its inevitable end before turning him inside out to give us a horribly successful human being. Both versions of Luke end horribly as the story takes us to a conclusion that is at once expected and surprising.
Here is where the novel’s trick happens. A supernatural event, a metaphysical crisis, takes the Luke we have come to know and sends him through the looking glass. He emerges not as his desperate 40 year-old self but as his desperate 29 year-old self, the one that is about to make the choices that led our first Luke down the path we’ve just seen. Now the story becomes one of the alternate universe Luke Morrow.
This Luke is still the Luke from the opening of the novel only now he is unfettered by any kind of anxiety. He gets a do-over and this time he is a man who won’t squandering his cultural capital but cash in on it. This means, in Baker’s formulation, Luke is no longer passive aggressive or benign but aggressive aggressive, malignant. The Luke of the second half of the novel is a callous prick who is able to navigate the world that our first Luke was not to massive financial gain. Of course, along the way he loses any meaningful intimacy, romantic or parental, becoming impoverished counter to our first depiction.
Although written in a style that is perhaps more suited for a script (Baker, after all, does have a significant background in the world of the big and small screen), Secrets of Men in a Lifeboat is compelling. It moves swiftly in its storytelling engaging (and enraging) the reader’s emotions. Baker is adept at writing daydreaming scenes that go a long way to reveal his character’s personality. These scenes are wonderfully cinematic.
However, he gets into the habit of beating a dead horse by constantly reiterating in rather plain and dull language details of the plot that readers already know quite well. By the second half of the novel, there’s a feeling of a sort of autopilot as the author gives over to this tendency giving us almost entirely exposition rather than proper deep vignettes. Also, the bro narrative of the creation of MyWorld.com, the company that leading to the company that nets our second Luke enough wealth for 500 lifetimes, goes on far too long and delivers little.
In the end, Secrets of Men in a Lifeboat is a midlife crisis novel akin to the classic It’s A Wonderful Life. But Baker’s version of this tale is anything but uplifting. His is one that seems to provocatively stab a finger in your chest asking, ‘Is this what you want? Huh? Is it?’ Baker’s tale of Luke Morrow is unsettling in just how casual and convincing it is. Neither Luke is someone you want to get to know, that you want to care about, but both Lukes are men we know too well and are disconcerting.
By the end of the novel we realize that the story hasn’t been about how a man achieves success or lives with his decisions, but about how a man fails at being a father. The novel is essentially a frame for Trevor Morrow, a story that is never told. This is a maneuver giving Baker’s novel more weight that it would otherwise have and one that suggests future work from the author could grow into something quite good.
About the Author
Todd R. Baker grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and somehow ended up on the shoal of Los Angeles. During Todd’s film industry career, he produced and developed movies for 20thCentury Fox, Paramount Pictures, Disney, Miramax, and Universal Pictures, starring Kevin Costner, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Robert Downey, Jr., Adam Sandler, Elijah Wood, Robert Duvall, Anjelica Huston, Whoopi Goldberg, Raul Julia, Daryl Hannah, Chris Farley, Steve Buscemi, Brendan Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, and Kenneth Branagh. He licenses two of his U.S. patents for one of his inventions and is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University. Todd lives in Playa Vista/Silicon Beach, California.
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