"I believe all of THE TOY COLLECTOR is emotionally true, however only part of it is based on my real life or people I know. It is, in essence, a work of fiction"
The Toy Collector is the first novel by the well-known screenwriter and filmmaker James Gunn. Published in 2000 by Bloomsbury, US, it's become quite a cult novel and is currently available new trade paperback (with a crappy "oh, I'll get it done in an afternoon" cover/ see bottom image) and at good used bookstores in hard-back (with a much better cover above).
I've been flirting with this book for years. Initially drawn to the cover art, I had built up an idea of what the book was about long before I cracked the covers and dug in. Boy, was I way off. Thinking I was sitting down to the story of the toy-collecting racket in new your, what I got was much, much better. Didn't take more than the first 10 pages to kick my preconceptions out the window. Instead of a cute, funny little novel like I imagined, what I got was a blistering portrait of lost childhood, desperate addiction to toys/sex and masochism set alternatively in the 70's and in present day New York City.
The narrator (called "James" in the book) is selling pharma stolen from the hospital where he works as an orderly. His life is desperate, funny and violent. He is suffering from some sort of trauma and collecting toys (sp. 70's toys and toy in particular) is one way he has of covering over the pain. Remembering is another way of coping. Half of the novel is a portrait of the author as a young boy with his brother, Tar, his non-existent and hapless father/mother, and a close circle of misfit friends whom he comes to love. In fact, it's these friends that give him his only true sense of love and belonging. One friend in particular, Gary, is the focus of the small group because he just can't seem to fend for himself at school and is troubled with fears and phobias. It's Gary who the narrator truly loves and protects.
But a terrible tragedy occurs in the past. One that cripples the narrator and all of his friends. An event so violent and tragic that they are all scarred for life. This chapter in particular has some of the finest writing I've read in years. My hands were literally trembling as I read it. And I couldn't come back to the book for a day or two; it's that powerful.
The book is darkly comic. Jet black, in fact. The early scenes of the two brothers and their friends playing with their toys is told realistically, like the adventures are actually happening. The fate of their heroes is often sadistic and horrifying (as are their enemies). The "Bob and Oscar" section early in the book is laugh-aloud funny and sick at the same time. I found myself nodding in agreement with the playing, like I'd been there myself. Any boy who played with toys will pick up on the mix of humor and cruelty. It's perfect writing with a fucking amazing amount of heart.
Eventually, fate brings a woman to James in New York. Her name is Evelyn and they seem to have a relation ship that might just save James's ass. Nope. This is a novel with no mercy. James hates himself too deeply and although he loves this woman, he fucks her over good, too (in more ways than one). Some of the sex scenes in the book are so personal and intense that it's hard to read them through. It's no pornography because the descriptions are particularly arousing, but because the sex is obviously so desperate and needful. Sex breaks through James's barriers to his wounded soul which is why the scenes are so necessary (and so passionately remembered/written by the author).
In the present, James visits his folks for the first time and takes Evelyn with him (they have hot sex during the Christmas party in his old room) and everything falls apart again. Despite trying not to drink, James needs alcohol and meds too much. After getting the shit kicked out of him by his sober and successful brother, he leaves everything to go home and buy toys and sell drugs. Everyone around James, including his street friends and roommate Bill, all see what he's doing to himself and they care for him anyway (well, most of them). Only James can't put it together.
Finally, in a scene that plays like the opening of Apocalypse, Now and Little Miss Sunshine, James comes face to face with one specific toy in his past. But it doesn't work; the magic is gone. And James has his dark night of the soul, but at great cost to his body and mind. No happy ending, but a real ending. Enduring, like in Beckett. "I can't go on, I'll go on".
The writing is remarkable. The pain and passion put into this book is off the scale. This is a no-holds-barred novel that won't let go of you. Especially if you had similar friends or events in your childhood (as I did). I deeply admire this book and wish the author would write another novel soon (it's been 10 years).
I'll be posting a short reading from one of the chapters in the next day or so. Highly, highly recommended.
NOTE: For more info on James Gunn's film career check his IMDB entry and his own personal website.