‘Why do your tales of degradation and humiliation make you so popular?’ a fellow drinker at Moe’s Bar asks Homer Simpson. Homer replies, ‘I dunno, they just do.’
The toper would have been wiser to have addressed the question to Toby Young. No writer in Christendom has made a greater success out of failure. Young’s massive bestseller, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, charted his thunderous flop as a journalist in New York. How we applauded his defeat. While reading The Sound of No Hands Clapping we cheer ever more heartily as we follow Toby’s path through Hollywood, a path strewn with nettles from the Devil’s own Satanic garden.
Toby’s tale commences during a car ride to Norfolk. Out of the blue, he gets a call from a top Hollywood producer who asks him if he would like to write a film script about a famous rock legend:
This was the summons I’d been waiting for — if not all my life, certainly for the past two and a half years. Having failed as a glossy magazine editor in New York, I was determined to make it as a screenwriter.
Before setting off for California, he discovers his wife is pregnant. ‘Bloody hell!’ he yells. (Toby appears to have no inhibitions about coming across as an extremely self-absorbed character.)
Over the next few weeks, as the news that I was going to be a father gradually sank in, I began to worry about the effects it would have on my career, too. As an aspiring writer, shouldn’t I try and reduce the demands on my time rather than increase them?… I already had to contend with journalism and drink. Wasn’t it a bit rash to throw in ‘pram in the hall’ as well?
Perhaps that’s why we love his books. Who would laugh at seeing a nice person repeatedly stubbing his toe on the brick of fate? Yet how comforting it is to gloat over Toby Young’s every ambition being hideously thwarted.
Mr Hollywood buys Toby a first-class ticket to LA, puts him up in a swanky hotel, and concludes the first meeting by promising to hire him. The screenplay is finally written and dispatched to Mr Hollywood. Toby waits on tenterhooks for Mr Hollywood’s reaction. He even moves to California with his disgruntled wife and baby in the hope of stepping high, wide and plentiful with movie stars and ‘hot and cold running flunkeys’. After three months of hearing nothing and continually being told to ‘hold’ by snooty secretaries, Toby decides to stalk Mr Hollywood with predictably disastrous consequences. Obvious-ly he had not heeded Woody Allen’s sage description of life in the movie industry: ‘It’s worse than dog eat dog. It’s dog doesn’t return other dog’s phone calls.’
Young is terribly insightful when commenting on America’s ruthless, money-obsessed philistinism. The secret subtext of the book is that the people who are rejecting Toby are the stupid ones — the lunatics, if you like, who have taken over the American asylum.
As he staggers on his nettle-strewn way Toby regales us with delicious drubbings, past and present, delighting us with tales of his uproarious ineptitude:
I had almost no aptitude for screenwriting. It had taken me a fortnight just to write the word ‘Untitled’ at the top of the first page.
Every anecdote is unbelievably humorous — his hostility towards his wife’s pregnancy, his newborn daughter resembling Winston Churchill, his inability to write a decent script, even his wife’s threatened miscarriage becomes as comic as a sketch from Ronnie Corbett’s chair. Perhaps the Churchill look-alike won’t be so tickled when she finally reads this book, but never mind. She will no doubt inspire a future book, How to Fail in Fatherhood. Let’s hope it will be as perspicacious and witty as this one.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 16, 2006