Watch what you say around writers—so goes the oft-stated wisdom—because they just might immortalize you in a book. That may not apply to all authors, but it does for Maurice Swift, the protagonist of A Ladder to the Sky.
It would spoil the pleasure of reading John Boyne’s latest novel to describe most of its plot points, but let’s just say Yorkshire-born Swift is more determined than your average aspiring writer. He has two dreams: to become a celebrated author, and to have a child. And he’ll steal from anyone, starting with 65-year-old German writer Erich Ackermann, whom Swift meets in 1988 when he’s a young waiter in Berlin.
Soon, Ackermann, a gay man with long-suppressed desires, asks the fulsome Swift to accompany him to literary events around the world. Ackermann also shares details of his past, including his membership in the Hitler Youth and a fateful wartime decision regarding a childhood friend.
Swift betrays Ackermann by using his story as the basis for Two Germans, his debut novel. Boyne then presents scenes, most of them told from the perspectives of other characters, that chronicle the extremes Swift pursues to further his career. No one is safe, including Dash Hardy, an older gay writer Swift accompanies to Gore Vidal’s Italian villa; Swift’s wife, Edith, whose literary career is poised to take off just when Swift’s has stalled; and even Swift’s own teenage son.
Boyne sometimes paints in broad strokes, but he compensates with many wonderful touches. Exchanges between Vidal and Swift are deliciously venomous, and the digs at contemporary publishing are spot-on, as when Swift describes a debut novel he dislikes as, “Bridget Jones meets A Clockwork Orange.”
A Ladder to the Sky is an entertaining, if deeply cynical, portrait of the literary world.