It is tempting to think of a whimsically-inclined title such as The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway as a jaunty, appealingly-idiosyncratic journey through the highs and lows of life with a young Englishman whose unorthodox approach to life and decidedly non-mainstream experiences lead to a glowingly-happy end at which much lessons are learned, hope is restored, and the worst of the world is soundly beaten by its very best.
While that is, in part, what happens, and author Rhy Thomas does a fine job of satirising the genre of superhero-dom, among many other things, as he does so, Sam Holloway is leading anything but a charmed existence.
Deeply, and he feels irrevocably-scarred, by an Event – yes the capital letter is most certainly warranted as you soon discover – Sam is a dedicated worker at an English-domiciled Japanese electronics wholesaler by day, where is watched over with almost fatherly concern and pride by Mr Okamatsu, and where his spartan desk is seen as a mark of undeclared OCD by coworkers such as Linda, who bears the brunt of Sam’s many unconscious ticks.
By night, however, Sam is an entirely different, far less self-effacing creation, one of his own hand, who dons a mask, specially-ordered vest and other gear such as smoke bombs, and heads into the dark of his quaint English town to right wrongs, to make the world feel safer again as only as mysterious, self-sacrificing superhero can.
“It had been a feeling of despair mixed with elation. The costume was amazing and awful; it was insane. There in the spring evening something was badly wrong with the grand plan that had been his life. How ridiculous it was, and yet the elation – the feeling of being cocooned in another person – was intoxicating and, more than this, it was easy. It felt easy. Since donning the mask he had finally achieved an inner peace. Insane or not, it was what he needed to do.” (P. 31)
But who is Sam really making the world safer for? The various people he encounters who understandably see him as some sort of oddity, although a great many such as the Vicar and a young teenager with anger issues see him as a kindly force, or himself?
For Sam, horrified by life and unable to fully participate in its great many delights, properly and to their full extent, feels distinctly unsafe.
So unsafe, in fact, that while he goes out to the pub or to all-night gaming events with his lifelong friends Tango and Blotchy, and takes holidays where he drives into the countryside and stops at favourite cafe for refreshments, he is not really alive.
No matter what he does, grief, an enervating, horrifically-warping kind of grief is constantly taking away from everything he does and experiences, making his life far less fulfilling than it should be, especially after he meets the red-haired delight that is librarian Sarah, and adding a particular urgency to his nocturnal activities that lends them as a heightened poignancy, even with Thomas’s dryly funny film-noir-esque prose.
For all the whimsy and charm that The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway possesses, and it has them in pleasing, awkward abundance, it is, at its heart, a book of about the way grief seizes us, often out of the blue, and doesn’t let us go.
Or more to the point, we grow so used to its presence, to its cold, dead hand, to its many unceasing demands, that we don’t want to let it go, or more accurately, are unable to let it go.
Having eschewed counselling following the Event, Sam is, at times literally thanks to misjudgement while out and about as the Phantasm, the walking wounded, a man who never talked about what happened and how deeply it affected him until he begins to unburden himself to Sarah who has herself been scarred by the unexpected misfortunes of life.
As Thomas thoughtfully and with great sensitivity and understanding takes us further into the messed-up terrain of Sam’s initially-perceived quirky existence, we come to understand that he is a creature of his grief, rather than someone who has endured it, come out to the other side (well, as much as grief ever allows you do that; let’s be honest, there is no real end) and has rejoined the human race, albeit with a wholly-changed perspective.
“It was dusk and it was time to go. But he didn’t take the box to the car. Instead, he found himself in the deserted swimming pool again, the cats watching him from the overgrown bushes and unruly trees. The sky was a fire red, a dry wind whipped his face. He opened the box and removed his parents’ wedding album. He flicked through the pages, not thinking much, pausing on one image of his mum and dad standing on the steps of the church with confetti drifting. He was in the photo too. In her belly. You couldn’t see any evidence of any unborn Sam, but he was in there.” P. 215)
If you have gone through the darkness and lostness of grief, you will ache for Sam’s alienation from humanity and life, feel for his inability to surmount it fully even as Sarah’s presence impels him to do so in a way only true love can, and yes there is a sweet love story that saves them both simultaneously, and yet be utterly charmed and move by the way Thomas charts his reemergence, after a somewhat overly-melodramatic denouement, into the fullness of life.
Sam, or rather Samson, is given exquisitely full presence by Thomas who not only gives us rare and precious insight into someone injured by grief, and at a loss to know how to deal with it because his superhero shenanigans, which are in reality a desperate cry for help, but also a young man who knows there’s more out there for him if he can just reach it.
Appealingly balancing whimsy and darkness, euphoria with unutterable sadness, Thomas shows us a life balanced on a knife-edge, full of so much possibility but with little to no idea of how to realise it.
One thing is for sure – you will come to love Sam, identify with his dilemmas and internal struggles with empathetic profundity if grief has even but grazed past you (but more so if it has claimed something precious from you) and hope against hope as The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway follows a wholly unusual and yet startlingly all-too-real journey from wholeness into grief (via flashback) and then, in messy fits and starts that make great relatable sense, back out in again.
It may have a quirky title, but this is not some fey trip through the delightfully contrary environs of human existence; rather The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway is a grounded, affectingly-true excursion into the very worst life can throw at us, even in the midst of the blandness and uniformity of suburbia, and ultimately the very best, a rewarding transformational journey that stays close to the idea that getting to the destination is worth every moment (and is indeed desperately necessary) but is far more circuitous than any of us might expect, and pockmarked with a great many, decidedly non-whimsical steps along the way.