The Good Mayor, by Andrew Nicoll

nicoll Good Tibo Krovic has been mayor of the town of Dot (an imaginery community on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Ampersand) for 20 years:

Tibo Krovic enjoyed being mayor. He liked it when the young people came to him to be married. He liked visiting the schools of Dot and asking the children to help design the civic Christmas cards. He liked the people. He liked to sort out their little problems and their silly disputes. He enjoyed greeting distinguished visitors to the town.

With that introduction of the central character of The Good Mayor, author Andrew Nicoll serves notice that this novel won’t be an exploration of world-shaking problems. He is also quick to acquaint readers with the book’s narrator, St Walpurnia, the wart-covered, bearded, patron saint of Dot, who in her turn introduces us to the book’s second major character (and Tibo’s biggest conundrum), his secretary:

Agathe Stopak was everything that St Walpurnia was not. Yes, she was blessed with long, dark, lustrous hair — but not on her chin. And her skin! White, shining, creamy, utterly wartless. Mrs Stopak, although she showed me the dutiful devotion proper for any woman of Dot, was not one to take that sort of thing to extremes…

All winter long, Mrs. Stopak came to work in galoshes and, seated at her desk, she slipped them off and took from her bag a pair of high-heeled, peep-toe sandals. Inside his office, poor, good, love-struck Mayor Krovic would listen for the clump of her galoshes when Mrs Stopak came in to work and rush to fling himself on the carpet, squinting through the crack beneath the door for a glimpse of her plump little toes as they wormed into her shoes.

All of this takes place “in the year Blank, when A-K was the governor of the province R”. And there is a ferry between Dot and neighboring Dash — and the town has a rivalry with nearby Umlaut. If you are wondering about Kafkaesque influences, abandon the thought. While a willingness to accept and go along with the absurd is vital to reading this book, those references are closer to annoying cuteness than to Kafka intrigue. Having said that, Nicoll does not push it. The Good Mayor is above all else a story of how Tibo and Agathe create and prolong unrequited love.

All Agathe wants is to be wanted. She remembers when her paperhanger husband did that, but that time has long passed. Now he mainly works, eats, drinks and passes out — for him, she is mainly the person in the other half of the bed. Despite her desire, she is unaware that the answer to her “want” is in the office next door.

Nicoll takes a fair while before he allows the two to start approaching each other and, in that period, does play some nice games with what politics and administration in a small town are like — the novel is not without its humor. But it only really starts moving when one day Agathe’s lunch box falls into the fountain and Tibo, obsessively watching from his office window, rushes down to take her to lunch.

Daily lunches together become the centre of both their existences, but there is no “couple” in that process :

Life was lunches after that. They spent their mornings looking forward to lunchtime and, all afternoon, they laughed about what they had laughed about at the table. They went for lunch and laughed and talked about everything. They talked about books and Tibo was an expert on books. He had read everything and he shared what he knew with her. They talked about food and Agathe was an expert on food. Whatever they ate at The Golden Angel, she could make better at home. Soon she was filling her blue enamel lunch box with good things for Tibo to heat up in his own kitchen. No more herring and potatoes for him. They talked about life and sadness and loneliness and each found that the other was an expert. But each was an expert in a different field. Tibo knew the loneliness of being alone, Agathe knew the loneliness of being with another.

That paragraph pretty much sums up the story. And while it seems slim pickings, it is to the author’s credit that he explores those two versions of loneliness in an engaging way that does keep the story going — or at least it did for this reader. The Good Mayor is not so much a novel about opportunities missed as it is a book about the consequences of opportunities not taken. That is not an earth-shaking theme, but it is a worthwhile one.

Agathe’s need to do something, anything to change her status eventually provides a twist to the plot but not a resolution; rather, it builds the tension in the non-explored (let alone consummated) relationship. It does eventually get resolved.

The Good Mayor won the Scottish Best First Novel, 2008. It was recently released in North America (you can read the opening paragraphs at the publisher’s website here). Despite its considerable flaws, it was an entertaining read — more can be expected from Nicoll in the future.

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7 Responses to “The Good Mayor, by Andrew Nicoll”

  1. Andrew Says:

    For all my considerable flaws, I’m glad you liked the book. Thank you. I have been astonished by all that’s happened; sold in 20 nations, translated into 17 languages and now it’s been taken on for Target’s “Breakout Books” promotion. Huzzah.

    Thank you again for your interest

    best wishes

    Andrew

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Andrew: Umm, I did say the book had flaws, not the author. Thank you for the comment — I wanted to say in the original post that you had prepared for your writing career with “a brief stint as a lumberjack” (very Canadian that) but couldn’t work it in until now. Congratulations on the widespread interest and good luck with international sales.

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  3. Isabel Says:

    Sounds like a great read.

    I see the religious influences. Was the religion Catholic or Orthodox?

  4. John Self Says:

    I looked at this book a few times in the shop when it came out, largely because I couldn’t work out if the author was the screenwriter of The Truman Show, a film I love. (He’s since gone on to direct his own films, such as Gattaca, Simone and Lord of War, which have earned him diminishing critical returns.) But I don’t think it is, as the writer I am thinking of spells his name Andrew Niccol. Just as well really, since such renaissance-man like talent would be quite unbearable.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: Given that the narrator is a saint, it is surprising how little religion there is in the book — she is more a talisman for the town then a religious figure. Tibo only goes to the church once a year, as part of the procession to bless the office of mayor. For what it is worth, I thought she was Catholic, but it could well be Orthodox. St Walpurnia does figure in the climax, but more as a figure to be appealed to than as a representative of divine guidance.
    John: I don’t know Andrew Niccol, but I would be certain we are talking about two quite different Andrews.

  6. Elizabeth Allison Says:

    I loved the tone of this book with all its absurdities, about the capriciousness of love, and the flaws in human nature. I think I would have liked to know what happened to Mr Stopak, and I wondered if all readers would know that strega is a witch.
    To consider St Walpurnia as a religious influence in the book is ridiculous – she is a spoof! but she makes a good narrator.
    A fun read.
    Elizabeth
    Vancouver, Canada

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Definitely a fun read, Elizabeth. And you are quite right about St Walpurnia — even as a narrator she seems more bemused than anything else that she is an excuse for festivals and request for intervention rather than a religious influence.

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