‘Maybe the Horse Will Talk’ by Elliot Perlman (Review)

The first of this week’s reviews of Australian books had us following an apostle around the world of the first-century Mediterranean, but today’s choice takes place a lot closer to home.  It’s set in the city and inner suburbs of my adopted home town, Melbourne, and looks at the stresses of modern life and the dangers of trying to become successful in the corporate world.  It’s an amusing book about not losing your head when everything falls apart – you just have to hold it above water until you think of the next idea to drag yourself onto dry land…

Elliot Perlman’s Maybe the Horse Will Talk (review copy courtesy of Vintage Australia) follows teacher-turned-lawyer Stephen Maserov as he attempts to save both his career and his marriage.  Having discovered that he’s to be let go by his employers in the near future, he formulates a proposal to Malcolm Torrent, a visiting client, to solve a problem he overheard him discussing in a meeting with Stephen’s boss:

“Mr Torrent, I want to put something to you.  I’m only a second-year lawyer, with all the inexperience that entails, but if you give me twelve months to get on top of this, to do nothing but work on these sexual harassment cases, I will find a solution for you.”
p.21 (Vintage Australia, 2019)

Unbelievably, the businessman agrees, and overnight, Maserov finds himself with a nice office, a year’s grace and virtual carte blanche to deal with the cases.

However, that doesn’t mean all of his problems have magically gone away.  Something isn’t quite right about the cases, with the opposing lawyer nowhere to be found, and having thumbed his nose at his actual employers, Maserov is unlikely to get any help in his quest from people who are desperate for him to fail.  More importantly, though, a change of scenery isn’t likely to help him make any headway with his estranged wife, who kicked him out months earlier for never being around.  Still, given enough time, and a bit of ingenuity, anything’s possible.

Best known for his lengthy modern social novels The Street Sweeper and the wonderful Seven Types of Ambiguity , Perlman has gone for a distinct change of pace with Maybe the Horse Will Talk; it’s definitely not what most readers would have been expecting from him after an eight-year literary absence.  The novel is more of a comedy-thriller, fast-paced and entertaining, with Maserov adrift in a corprorate sea, clutching at the first flotsam that comes along, only to discover that it’s dynamite.  The title comes from a bedtime story he tells his young son, in which a court jester who is about to be killed by the king promises to teach a horse to talk within the space of a year.  It represents the blind optimism we have when things are going badly; any idea is a good one, just as long as it buys us some time.  That becomes Maserov’s guiding philosophy, and every time things look tricky, he simply comes up with another improbable plan, most of which come off.

Perlman’s early works, the novel Three Dollars and the short-story collection The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, took place in the corporate and legal world, and he returns to that setting here, eviscerating corporate culture as he casts an acute eye over the horrors it represents.  Stephen’s employer, Freely Savage Carter Blanche, has an almost Dickensian/Trollopian ring to its name, and the writer describes the fear and loathing that fills the enormous modern temples housing thousands of supposedly ‘lucky’ lawyers terrified of losing a job they secretly loathe.  However, when Maserov jumps ship, finding himself on retainer at Torrent Industries, he discovers that the modern business environment is the same everywhere:

You wanted to believe it.  Maserov had seen people at Freely Savage wanting to believe similar corporate professions of gratitude.  You wanted to buy in.  You felt better if you did and so many did, as much as they could for as long as they could, and you tried not to pay too much attention to other things you heard unofficially and on the grapevine. (pp.67/8)

Of course, things can always be worse.  He, as a white man, has it better than most, as he is about to learn.

Maybe the Horse Will Talk starts off well, and the plot and dialogue crackle and zip in the first half, both from the ludicrous nature of Maserov’s task and some quick one-liners (“Are you a religious man?”, “No, we’re Anglican.”).  The story receives a boost with the arrival of the mysterious opposing lawyer, A.A. Betga, whose grudge against Maserov’s boss Mike Hamilton festers in the background.  Maserov spars with Betga, all the time balancing his new job with getting the kids ready for bed (while his estranged wife, Eleanor, spits bile at him).  Then, of course, there’s the beautiful Jessica Annand, frustrated with her career progression, wary of lecherous men at her workplace and hoping Stephen can help her move on up the corporate ladder, and perhaps protect her from her male supervisors in the process.

However, even early on, many readers will have nagging doubts about the story.  There are several weighty topics here, dealt with rather lightly for the most part, with sexual harrassment, mental health issues and suicide attempts mere fodder for the story’s humour.  Maserov himself starts off as a hapless hero, yet somehow everything comes up roses for him in a slightly unrealistic manner, as if his teaching background somehow makes him special.  Perhaps the weakest aspect of the book, though, is the way there are so many capable, betrayed women (such as Jessica and Carla, Betga’s client and one-time partner).  It’s lucky, then, that there are some well-meaning white men there to save them…

As you may have gathered, Maybe the Horse Will Talk is all a bit lad-lit at times, more Nick Hornby or Nick Earls than vintage Perlman, but, surprisingly, it’s when that changes that the book goes downhill.  You see, the writer’s real message is that putting out fires only works for so long – eventually, you’re causing more damage than you’re repairing.  This may have worked well in a more measured book, but after hundreds of pages of playing it for laughs, the late twist, with Maserov’s plans starting to come off the rails, comes across as forced and out of place.  Having decided to take a more genre approach, perhaps the writer should have finished off the job instead of opting for a more ambiguous, and slightly disappointing, ending.

In truth, Maybe the Horse Will Talk wasn’t quite my thing, and it’s certainly not a patch on Seven Types of Ambiguity.  However, that doesn’t make it a bad book, and it’ll definitely find an audience.  It’s a quick enjoyable read about trying to survive in the modern work world, and the moral of Perlman’s story is to never give up and always buy yourself some time.  You never know – there’s always the slightest of chances that the horse will talk, after all.

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