A life of blight and wry humour
Steven Boykey Sidley turns a mid-life crisis into an internal adventure, writes Beverley Roos Muller
MID-LIFE often arrives with the brassy blare of an off-key note – especially for those who expect to live their lives boldly and with flair. Bliss, it turns out, is ephemeral at best. To find just a single moment of perfection becomes the grail for Meyer, an alter ego of Steven Boykey Sidley, (also a saxophonist, in a band with long-time friend and author Rian Malan). Sidley has turned out three marvellous books in quick succession, of which this latest, Imperfect Solo, has pleased me most.
And what about that middle name, I ask him during his recent Cape Town visit from Joburg? “When I was born to an American mother, the midwife said, ‘What a nice boykie!’ and she loved it, so I’ve been called that ever since – do call me Boykey.”
Though, he adds, “some people find that difficult”.
And he has a point, because its juvenile playfulness has some dissonance with his author persona: witty and very bright, tussling with the surprises and uncertainties of middle age.
Also, his middle name is actually Harry, so Boykey is better PR schtick.
Sidley is calmer and more engaging that I had imagined. I’m unsurprised to find him reading a Philip Roth biography, Roth Unbound – A Writer and his Books by Claudia Pierpont, and we spend a happy few minutes discussing the writing of one of the greatest living American authors.
Sidley is fond of stating that “a book is a scaffold to excavate themes” – not dissimilar to Roth. They have both plunged into the hurly-burly of risked lives, passionate, controversial and gamechanging, but with the capacity for great kak. They’re also firm secularists. “My father was passionate about the primacy of science,” says Sidley, who went from Wits University to UCLA for his MSc, and, for two decades in the US, lived the wild child/creative/party life.
The thing is, we all think the primacy of discovery is about the exterior world until it dawns on us that our real journey is one of self-discovery, with all its mistakes and flaws, joys and tragedies. Imperfect Solo is such a journey, filled with mordant humour and blight, and characters I’d want to encounter at my ideal dinner party – preferably a little worse for wear in that marvellous interregnum when inhibitions are sufficiently dropped but guests aren’t so pasted as to descend into drivel or incoherence.
Meyer, the central character of Imperfect Solo, is in a mid-life crisis of biblical proportions. He’s forty-ish, eluding the fame his early promise portended, and his life is going south at speed. He is filled with dread – as it turns out with fair reason, as disasters stack up and gnash at his heels.
I thought of the Old Testament’s Job when reading Solo, but the book is too ironic for that simile to hold (Sidley confirms Job is not a reference he was conscious of).
Meyer’s sh*tstorm of a life steamrollers into dread actualised, but there is also some redemption.
He has simply learned to ask for little – certainly less than he might have earlier – and to be glad of the grace of the rare but perfect moment.
He also has supporters, the most engaging of which is Farzad, his Iranian, Harvard-trained psychologist friend who placidly offers dry, wise advice and who has learned to live contentedly with the paradoxes of his own existence.
Farzad is the “moral centre” of Meyer’s thrashing life, a person we’d all be lucky to have as a sturdy lifeline.
“I think men get more hopeless as we get older,” Sidley says.
“We have a set of standards of what it is to be male, and can’t live up to that, and end up flailing and battered.”
Imperfect Solo is the best of Boykey’s impressive books so far, his own voice strongly sounding out this unique solo. It’s also the one I most want to read again.
Imperfect Solo is published by Picador AfricaAfrica.