Tommy's Tale is the debut novel of the actor Alan Cumming. I am always full of misgivings when I start reading books written by actors (autobiographies or novels), but I keep on reading them, not only because I love actors and have researched actors' writings, but because I have had quite a few pleasant surprises. Peter Ustinov is a distinguished writer, David Niven did not do badly, and Dirk Bogarde was excellent, to name but three. With Cumming I was favorably disposed, as I had admired his script (with Jennifer Jason Leigh) for The Anniversary Party (Alan Cumming & Jennifer Jason Leigh, 2001). Of course, good scriptwriters do not necessarily make good novelists, and vice versa, but I knew he had at least a good ear for dialogue. Cumming is a Scottish Thespian, originally a theater fanatic, who took home many an award for his stage work, notably in the musical Cabaret, and whose talent is more and more appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic; but I expect most people know him for his portrayals of Fegan Floop in Spy Kids 1, 2, and 3, and for his role as the blue-skinned mutant Kurt Wagner (AKA Nightcrawler) in the underrated X2 (Bryan Singer, 2003). The very camp Fegan Floop is the best thing in the otherwise not-so-inspiring-in-spite-of-Rodriguez Spy Kids children's movies. I have known Cumming to do drag and write magazine articles too.
Tommy's Tale was first published in the US in 2002. In some ways it reminded me of Rupert Everett's novels. Another good British actor, the multi-talented Rupert Everett wrote two extremely camp novels: Hello Darling Are You Working (1992) and The Hairdressers of Saint-Tropez (1995). But if Tommy's Tale is equally camp and equally funny, if not more so, I believe it is better-written. The bisexual narrator, Tommy, has reached his thirtieth year turning point. He will be thirty in a few weeks. He is a photographer's assistant who shares an apartment with other bohemian types in London (Islington), goes out a lot and does a lot of drugs and has a lot of sex. The most comic passages are those when he spares the reader none of the most intimate and often hugely embarrassing details of his daily life, many of which having to do with body parts and awkward "dealings" with other people. There is a new boyfriend, an old girlfriend, and some one-night-stands. And partying Tommy suddenly has a problem: he wants to have a child. Besides, he has a tendency to get into all sorts of scrapes. Maturity is certainly an issue, to put it mildly. "I am a little boy! He cried. I am a little boy! What's wrong with that?" (2)
Cumming has no taboos whatever, and uses any amount of "vulgar" slang he deems necessary either in the dialogue or the narration; but it never feels forced or excessive as it does in some trendy novelists' work. Often the language is mid-Atlantic, and it makes you wonder if Cumming is simply catering to his American readers, or showing how all the time he has spent in Hollywood has left its mark, or if he is merely another example of the way American English increasingly permeates British English, mostly through movies and television shows. I recently overheard an English teenager speak to her English friend and noted that her three short sentences each contained the word "like" two to three times, notably in the phrase "and I'm like" standing for "so I said to him." Not so long ago such Americanisms were very rarely heard in good old Albion.
There are quite a few metafictional passages in the book, all done in a very amusing non-intellectualized manner, often between parentheses. Tommy is constantly commenting upon his narrative and / or comparing his life / narrative to a TV show, a film, or a novel—and obviously Cumming knows exactly what he is doing, seizing the opportunity to comment on popular culture.
the narrative is interrupted at intervals by fables, or as Tommy
views them, short "fairly tales" (pun no doubt intended),
that usually function rather well as unpretentious mises en
abyme. Page 219 Tommy goes to New York for work, and then the
pace of the novel accelerates tremendously. I will not spoil the
ending for the reader, but I believe it cannot hurt the book's sales
if I conclude with my main feeling when I finished it: utter joy.