A Loser Aims High

Good to be God by Tibor Fischer

Books Faith Literature The Catholic Church The Church of England

Tibor Fischer has long been known for his absurdist black comedy, but in his new novel, Good to be God, the bleakness threatens to overwhelm the humour. Its narrator, Tyndale Corbett, opens his story in a state of near clinical depression and the moral musings on human selfishness which punctuate his subsequent picaresque adventures sink at times to levels of such bitterness as to compromise even the most robust reader’s will to live.

Tyndale, a self-confessed loser, is unemployed, divorced, alone and suffering from a never to be identified “persistent and embarrassing medical condition”. When an old school friend, now a handcuffs salesman, offers to lend him his passport and credit card, it seems like the only route to salvation. Under this adopted identity, he is flown to Miami to attend a law-enforcement conference and he decides not to come home. His attempts to turn around his life there involve befriending people with names like Dishonest Dave (who is always getting mugged) and Napalm (a man so physically repulsive that “all his top teeth are struggling to form one big tooth, and they are covered in a delicate yellow film”). He works briefly and unsuccessfully for a vicious ice-cream seller (he can’t even manage to scoop the stuff into the cones) and then for a drug dealer who is training as a therapist.

It is when he stumbles upon the Church of the Heavily Armed Christ – whose unconventional iconography includes a firearm in the hands of Jesus, and whose leader, a sagging Vietnam veteran, takes potshots at Hare Krishna devotees – that his craziest ambition takes hold, to convince the citizens of Miami that he, Tyndale, is God himself: “Aim high. Cut out the middle man. Don’t be holy, be divine.” The climax of these attempts involves hiring a corpse from a crooked mortuary in a bid to fake his own death and resurrection. Unsurprisingly, given Tyndale’s propensity to failure, even this goes unreported in the press.

Along the way we are treated to a series of set-piece scenes marked by bathetic grand guignol. Tyndale’s attempts to manipulate the grotesques he meets – such as a double act of “beefy, imbecilic” DJs, whom he recruits to rough up a young girl’s unsuitable boyfriend – are always doomed. When, out of compassion, he hires a very expensive prostitute named Shy to seduce the miserable Napalm, Napalm doesn’t even fancy her.

But underneath Tyndale’s cynical suit of armour and his attempts at ruthless criminality, he remains residually hopeful, something he regrets: “Unfortunately, deep within me the desire to be happy still skulks.” His despair at the human condition – “Are decency and love simply masks for arrogance and selfishness? Is rectitude a pledge that eventually we will get something in return?” – is so painfully rendered that when Fischer unexpectedly provides a redemptive ending, involving an idealised good woman, we cannot really believe in it. By the time one gets to the end, one is so inured to futility and horror that one suspects Fischer does not believe in his own deus ex machina either.

At his best, Fischer is a writer of dextrous verbal inventiveness whose literary imagination is at once highly controlled and utterly deranged. There are riffs on synonyms for cocaine, undercover cops with names such as Unibrow, Clingfilm, Earmuseum and Rehab (the latter is addicted to tiramisu), and odd neologisms (“pulpiteer”, “tournamentize”). Each sentence is highly polished, and Fischer’s cool stylistic intelligence saves the prose from mere mannered tricksiness. He is less assured when it comes to the larger narrative structure, however, which perhaps mimics Tyndale’s lack of direction rather too closely.