Southerners, Strange Foreigners, and Unabashed Perverts
The Toy Collectorby James Gunn
BloomsburyUSA, 276 pp., $23.95
The Toy Collector seemed familiar to me, but that's understandable. I kept comparing the novel to what I know and like. I decided that it's a cross between Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son and Douglas Coupland's Generation X because the protagonist is both a drugged-out hospital orderly and a twentysomething dreamer who, no matter how messed up he gets, still thinks he's cool. Then again, it's also a cross between South Park and The Catcher in the Rye, because much of the action is grossly funny but the narrative voice is appealingly sad. More importantly, The Toy Collector seems familiar because I, too, am a child of the Seventies, that Zenith-sheened, shag-rugged suburban revolution before Pong and Atari, when plastic action toys were children's false idols. In that era, the stories we acted out with army men, Barbies, superheroes, and moveable robots absurdly but undeniably shaped our points of view about adulthood.
Because of this legacy, screenwriter James Gunn (the protagonist shares his name with the author) has a serious problem coming of age. Gunn's most glittering moments were in the plastic, imagined world of childhood. He and his friends were granted all the toys they wanted (and stole the rest), but they were unloved by their parents and disliked by their community. In his 20s, Gunn befriends Bill, another person with an unhealthy attachment to the toys of his youth, and the two begin to collect these now very expensive toys. To finance their collecting, they pilfer and sell pharmaceuticals from the hospital. Gunn's life as a dealer is only a minor part of the novel. His life as an addict and drunk is not. Gunn parties his way through it all, yielding to waves of memories from his youth, all the while trying to buy back his childhood through toys. Gunn is clearly the hero of his own show; he fights for his friends' honor, wears suits all the time, and claims he isn't good with women, but his fights are sometimes ridiculous, and women can't get enough of him, the sex scenes resembling Gunn's childhood love drama between Ellen, the Fisher-Price TV anchor, and Dan, the plastic stuntman. The Toy Collector is over the top; it satirizes both Seventies melodrama and Nineties cynicism as Gunn barrels through life looking for beauty and love. But every page in this novel has something to laugh at and something sad to remember, and it's better than anything you'll see on TV.