Falling Sideways by Thomas E. Kennedy

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Falling Sideways, the second installment in Thomas E. Kennedy’s Copenhagen Quartet, constitutes a ribald meditation on love and lust, fathers and sons, men and women, and the compromises one makes growing up. Told from multiple points of view, Kennedy’s densely plotted novel takes place over the course of less than a week; as well as corporate intrigue, Kennedy packs several family crises and a coming-of-age story into that time frame. Rich with literary allusion, Kennedy’s funny, insightful rumination on masculinity demonstrates his ample gifts as a storyteller, and it gives reason to hope Kennedy, who has lived in Copenhagen since the mid-1980s and has published more than 25 books on small, mostly overseas presses, will continue to find a wider audience in his native United States.

The novel commences when Martin Kampman is appointed CEO of a Copenhagen-based multinational known as the Tank for the explicit purpose of downsizing. He starts by sacking the novel’s central character, Lawrence Breathwaite, the sole American at the Tank, one who has thoroughly acclimated to his environment, having married a Dane. Though he once had literary ambitions, Breathwaite has long since given them up in order to succeed in the corporate world: “Sitting to pee, he looked into the novel he’d been reading, at two lines he had underscored: Choose carefully who you pretend to be, for that is who you will become.” Having long since given up pretending to be anything but a corporate drone, Breathwaite begins the novel in poor health, waiting for the axe to fall. The lines he marks serve as an overture for the novel.

In an early scene, Breathwaite’s debauched colleague Harold Jaeger sits in a meeting, contemplating Kampman’s undecipherable mumble:

The woman beside him, Signe Cress, head of the legal department, also one year younger than Jaeger and one step higher on the hierarchical totem, was taking notes with a silver Cross pen in a fine script he could not quite decipher. It worried him vaguely that she seemed to understand enough of what the CEO was saying to take notes.

Obsessed with hierarchies and with sex, an old-style corporate player in the vein of Don Draper from Mad Men, Jaeger—unlike happily married, neutered Breathwaite—has developed “some of the prime skills of manhood.” Nevertheless, he lives in a dingy two-room apartment, having lost everything to a physically abusive ex-wife. By contrast, Kampman exemplifies a new type of corporate man, one distinguished by his self-control—and by extension, by his ability to control others. After a confrontation with Breathwaite, in one of several italicized stream-of-consciousness passages, Kampman contemplates the resemblance between Breathwaite and Kampman’s own alcoholic father: “Told him with my eyes how pathetic he made himself appear. Sentimental drunk. Sad, really. Victims of themselves. Naked to the world.” In one of the parallels that structures the novel, Breathwaite struggles with the memory of his own father’s powerlessness in the face of Breathwaite’s mother’s infidelity, just as his son, Jes, will struggle with Breathwaite’s powerlessness when he gets fired from the Tank.

Thomas E. Kennedy

Thomas E. Kennedy

As the novel develops, Kennedy focuses on the budding friendship between Kampman’s and Breathwaite’s sons, Adam and Jes. As Jes initiates Adam into the world of smoky bars, immigrant neighborhoods, and American rock and roll, the boys reject the compromises they see their fathers having made (again in an italicized passage): “And Jes told me what you do for a living. You fire people. How come I never knew that before, Dad? You keep it a secret? Ashamed, maybe?” The boys sit in Jes’s apartment drinking beer and listening to jazz and old Bob Dylan records; they share a significant sexual experience with Jytte, one of several strong female characters. While the novel seems wiser than its teenage rebels, we can’t help but root for them, even if we fear their idealism might be doomed.

Falling Sideways dramatizes the impossibility of having it both ways: “Choose carefully who you pretend to be, for that is who you will become.” Late in the book, during an argument, Jes, throws these lines back in his father’s face. By pretending to be a corporate man, has Breathwaite become one? To the fathers in the book, compromise equals survival, while to their sons, compromise equals a betrayal of principle. Yet if Kennedy understands the ways in which growing up necessitates compromise, he also seems to understand the price we pay for making those compromises, and part of the novel’s grace lies in the fact it successfully embodies both sides of a generational conflict.

Like each novel in the Copenhagen Quartet, Falling Sideways stands alone, though the books share thematic links and a setting. Unlike the previous installment, In the Company of Angels, Falling Sideways treats masculinity as its major theme, yet in both books, Kennedy writes strong, sympathetic female characters. By the end, Breathwaite has lost nearly everything—his position, his manhood, the respect of his son; his literary dreams have long since come to naught—but he finds redemption in his marriage, which offers a reprieve from the hyper-masculine world of the Tank. In the book’s final scenes, Kennedy takes several remarkable risks, delivering us to a place where we understand the tragic inevitability of selling out—and more importantly, the ways in which we might nevertheless be redeemed.

The novel succeeds in part because Kennedy seems to empathize with his most flawed characters. Even Kampman, who so engenders our hatred and makes us glad to see him fall, only wants what’s best for his son. True, many of the female characters serve as helpmeets, initiating the boys (and the men) into adulthood, yet every character engages the reader’s sympathy. Perhaps—as other critics have suggested—Breathwaite deserves better than he gets from his son at the end of the novel. Yet Jes’s cruelty toward both his father and toward Adam underscores the moral complexity of Kennedy’s world, suggesting the limits of idealism sometimes lie with the all-too-human limitations of idealists, who can abuse their power just like anyone else. Ultimately, however, the book remains hopeful, capturing art’s romantic allure as well as both the rewards and the costs of pragmatism.

Tom Andes has published fiction in Witness, Natural Bridge, News from the Republic of Letters, the Akashic Books Mondays Are Murder Flash Fiction Blog, Best American Mystery Stories 2012, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans and can be found here: @thomaseandes. More from this author →