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Toby Griffin, the twenty-something narrator of Tom Dolby’s first novel The Trouble Boy is spoiled, immature, whiny and shallow. He trips through life, relating one disappointing ” experience after another, blissfully unaware that any of these adventures is the kind of opportunity half the world’s population would kill for. Toby is the center of this book and his own universe, and he’s a pretentious, woe-is-me wunderkind who can seemingly knock out brilliant screenplays and magazine prose despite an unending alcohol and drug-induced haze. In a nutshell, he’s not very likeable.
And that might just be a very good thing.
The Trouble Boy opens on the night when Toby, fresh from Yale and living in New York so that he can write screenplays, meets Jamie Weissman and his group of friends. Dolby realistically mines Toby’s yearning for a male-posse of friends, as well as the group dynamics of (mostly) platonic gay male friends. Hijinks ensue as the friends support, betray, lust after, and guide each other through the bars, parties, and premieres of a naively fantastic vision of downtown New York.
Real World Guy, Hustler Guy, Polo Boy, Designer Guy, Three-Way Guy, and Subway Guy all populate Toby’s imagination and his bed. Usually (in a rare nod to reality) his dream relationships and encounters far outshine the reality of drunken hook-ups and dating at 22-years-old.
Toby, as the star of the show, has plenty of non-sexual adventures as well, though sex is never far from sight. The Trouble Boy makes its way on the backs of a gay and star-obsessed culture’s stereotypes, and it does it well. Events and revelations happen at brunches, dinners, swank hotels and in the VIP sections of bars. Screenplay options, blockbuster openings, HIV, drugs, an unexpected pregnancy and a climactic car-crash-and-ensuing-trial all punctuate Toby’s tale.
This unrelenting, unappreciated fabulousness underscores the challenge and the potential Dolby’s novel. How do you write about a boy living in a fantasy world, who distrusts the fantasy but plays into it and desperately wants it to come true? How do you write a book seemingly exposing the false veneer of fame and success when you are also glamorizing it at the same time? Of all the characters — publicist, fag hag, transsexual performance artist, film star — it is only Toby who shows any real emotional growth.
The Trouble Boy
Unfortunately, that growth, as with everything in the novel, is too neatly arranged. The good friends are good, the bad people are bad. The perfect boy, viewed a time or two from a distance, is finally met, and turns out to be perfect after all.
Is this a clumsy, adolescent wish fulfillment novel, or is Dolby up to something more? That shallow, whiny narrator — is he shallow and simple so that he can expose the rot beneath the Big Apple’s core?
There is a skillful hand at work here. There are no loose ends and no extraneous plots, but sometimes it feels as if each situation has been too artfully arranged. Everything in The Trouble Boy does point unerringly toward the novel’s end.
And that ending, damn it all. Playing to our desire for happy endings, Dolby pulls out a trite, predictable final act that nevertheless will make even jaded readers smile. This is The Princess Diaries with sex, and Mean Girls with drugs and dishy brunch. Tom Dolby may have accomplished something very smart here — a book about veneer composed entirely of that veneer, but exposing, in its final moments, a sweetly beating heart.