The Sad Club - What's It All About, Stanley?

I think it's a good idea to give you a more involved idea about what The Sad Club is about. Anybody who read my last blog post will know the general gist of the plot - four men get the chance to fulfil their childhood vow to kill their bully - but that probably makes it sound quite simple, and you may be wondering where the finished product is, and why I couldn't have just typed out Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra and changed the forenames.

The main protagonist is Elliott, who is a forensic psychologist. At the start of the novel, he is at his lowest ebb, his wife and kids having left him and he being under investigation for his work with a notorious killer, who he recommended for release but who went on to kill again.

He receives an invitation to a friend's wedding, to be held in Berlin. Elliott hasn't seen this friend in twenty years, chiefly for the reason they didn't get on, but also because they we part of a hated foursome at secondary school and informally known as The Sad Club. Elliott has buried this part of his life on his road to success, but curiosity gets the better of him, and he decides to attend.

It transpires that the groom, Lol, has made his fortune since their schooldays, and will be marrying one of the hottest new stars in the world, Jana Simek, in a glamorous ceremony. He employs another member of the group, Sam, as a general dogsbody, though Sam is too naive to realise this. Incredibly, the fourth member of the group, Alex, has followed his acting dreams and is starring with Jana in her current film, which drives Lol mad with jealousy.

We learn through the psychologist's eyes that none of them have happy lives: Alex lives under a stage name and seems completely miserable despite his recent success, and Sam has yet to come to terms with losing his father in a warehouse fire, which was started by their school bully, Paul Tiler. Lol also seems desperate to grab ever more wealth, though we find in the course of his story it is because he is broke, being kept afloat by a complex paper trail. The wedding is nothing more than a front to try and impress a Russian oligarch into investing in Lol's last make-or-break project.

In the middle of all this, the same Paul Tiler gatecrashes Lol's pre-wedding celebration while on the run from an armed blag. The morning after, the vow they made as kids - to kill Tiler if they ever got the chance - is bought up. Elliott is the only one to disagree, but later comes to realise that Tiler has never really left them: all of their pain, neuroses and attempts to escape their past are rooted in how worthless he made them feel.

Agreeing to go along with the plot, Elliott hopes to crack Tiler and humanise him, showing them all they've outgrown his influence before they do something that will really damage the rest of their lives. But Paul claims to have lost his memory, meaning Elliott will have to revisit all of their pasts, pulling skeletons from closets and reopening long forgotten wounds between them all, all the while conscious that the last person he treated outsmarted him.

That's as much as I want to say to set the plot up, firstly because I don't want to give away my entire plot but also because it's a very intricately plotted work, and I'm aware it might be a 'he does this, and that leads to this, and then this...' I hope you'll see from that brief description that it's a very character driven novel, particularly as far as Elliott is concerned. What we're dealing with is five lives that entwine from schooldays to adulthood, so it's bound to be a difficult sell.

However, everyone I've described that plot to has been keen to see it written and polished up. I think it's a massive thing for some people - the hurt they carry with them from school, and confronting it is something practically everybody has to come to terms with. The three main characters are really Elliott, Paul and Lol, with Paul in the middle between someone who wants to help him and someone who wants to use him, but that line becomes blurrier the deeper into the book you go. That will become clearer the more you read, but needless to say these are characters who are not cartoons!

The book is a fairly straightforward narrative but with flashback chapters interspersed where it helps to colour the characters. Each flashback gives you more clues as to the motivations of the five and where they might end up.

I admit it sounds like a very ambitious work, particularly for a debut novel, but this has lived with me for a long time, and these characters are almost three-dimensional by now. I could tell you why Paul wears Hugo Boss rather than Joop, or why Elliott is a forensic psychologist rather than a child psychologist. The toughest thing has been threading five twenty-year plotlines into a way where there are inciting incidents and a satisfying ending for everybody.

I really hope that it stands as a thoughtful yet straightforward piece. I can't abide novels that use ten words when one will do. Where appropriate, there will be description, but this is a story about memory, growth, and redemption. I want you to live with these people and trust why they do the things they do.

At the moment, it's overlong, and you can see the support struts where I've tried to explain the plot to myself. That's okay - if it's worth its salt, I can remove those clunky passages of exposition or remodel them and it won't show. But the golden rule is to finish the work. If you don't, you don't have a story, you just have ideas which don't have a leg to stand on. Write like you're the ship that arrived in New York before the Titanic - if you were aware there was a possibility you might hit an iceberg, you would never dare set out on the journey!


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