FICTION The death of an obscure author of children's books sets off interest in his books - for good and bad.
We're used to seeing Hollywood celebrity parents and politicians overshadow their offspring; authors who write about their own children are in a special category. Luke Hayman, the center of Charles Elton's darkly comic first novel, "Mr. Toppit," is a boy whose father uses him as the model for the central figure in five illustrated books, collectively called the Hayseed Chronicles. The first begins, "When you were young, or maybe not so long ago, not very far from where you live, or perhaps a little closer, Luke Hayseed lived in a big, old house."
Elton begins his book with Luke's perspective on the global frenzy that came upon him after the death of his father, Arthur, an obscure author whose five children's books brought him little attention when first published. Arthur is run over by a cement truck after a visit to his London publisher, and is mortally injured. Laurie, a bystander -- a tourist from Modesto, Calif., who is clearly unhinged -- comforts him and follows him to the hospital. After this chance encounter, Laurie worms her way into the family's bedside vigil and funeral. Carrying her obsession for the Hayseeds (and the Haymans) back to the United States, she inspires a publishing revival of the books, which becomes a huge crossover success. Soon Laurie has her own Los Angeles-based TV talk show and is at the center of Hayseed mania.
Lurking in the darkness behind the fiction are Luke's eccentric mother, Martha, his fragile sister, Rachel, whose life is cursed by being left out of the story, and a mysterious brother he has never met. Luke and Rachel, and a growing number of readers, are obsessed with the mysterious villain in their father's novels; although he never appears, Mr. Toppit is ominously present. "And out of the Darkwood Mr. Toppit comes, and he comes not for you, and for me, but for all of us."
Elton covers several decades as he weaves back and forth from various perspectives, primarily Luke's and Laurie's. The centerpiece of the book is Luke's visit to Laurie's Los Angeles domain. He begins with a visit to the set for the filming of the series and a photo op with the actor who plays his namesake. Before long he's dipping into sex, drugs and skinnydipping.
"Mr. Toppit" is shot through with sophisticated and witty insights into the worlds of publishing and filmmaking in the United States and Britain that come from Elton's insider's perspective as a TV producer, literary agent and editor. Luke and Laurie are portrayed with depth, and Elton backs them up with an antic set of bit characters, including Laurie's mother, who is even nuttier than her nouveau diva daughter. Despite the darker shadows, "Mr. Toppit" is great fun.
Jane Ciabattari is the president of the National Book Critics Circle.