There is a tendency among debut novelists, particularly debut novelists who gravitate to the trappings of genre fiction, to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Debut novels are very often grand, massive works of tremendous ambition that achieve a great many things but don’t achieve any of them all that well. You can get an epistolary tale of magic realism involving space pirates and lizard monsters and a bunch of Shakespeare references to boot, but none of it ever really gives you a clear sense of voice.
That’s not the case with The Gentleman, the endlessly clever debut from Forrest Leo. This novel weaves together a brilliant sense of voice, a classic comedic touch that’s as potent as it is gentle, and a group of characters that could just as easily exist in a “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch as they could in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. With his first book, Leo delivers us a story that’s entertaining on about a dozen different levels, and he does it with a sense of joy that imbues his often self-serious narrator with a quality that makes every page lovable.
The narrator is Lionel Savage, a popular poet who, despite his success, is going broke. So, in search of financial salvation, he marries Vivien Lancaster, a woman of tremendous notoriety and wealth. It seems like a good idea at the time, but suddenly Lionel finds himself unable to write, and, in a moment of recklessness, accidentally sells his wife to a Gentleman at a party who just happens to be the Devil himself. In an effort to reclaim her, Lionel must venture out with Vivien’s dashing adventurer brother, his butler, an inventor, a bookseller and his often wild sister.
If that all sounds very outlandish to you, that’s because it is, but Leo delivers it all in a way that’s endlessly brisk, charming, and most importantly, clever. Savage’s narration is a series of quips in and of itself, punctuated by footnotes and highlighted by everything from jokes about the present tense to an exchange in which it’s made clear that The Devil doesn’t really like it when people call his home “Hell.” This is a novel propelled by voice, but the voice alone isn’t enough, so Leo bolsters it all with a wickedly funny plot and a series of characters who seem both wholly original yet clearly carved out of the page of a thumping good potboiler. It’s a marriage of old and new that’s never tiring, and it makes for a delightful page-turner.