Charles Elton’s funny, strange and often surprisingly insightful debut, Mr. Toppit, is a book about a series of best-selling children’s books, the details of which are kept conspicuously vague. We know that The Hayseed Chronicles follow the adventures of Luke Hayseed in a magical land called “Darkwood,” and that they combine fantasy with allegory and philosophy—à la The Chronicles of Narnia or even the Harry Potter books. But beyond that, we are at a loss, most notably concerning Mr. Toppit, Darkwood’s fickle Godot-like overlord, who appears only briefly at the end of the final Hayseed installment and for whom all the characters in Elton’s “real” world seem to be searching.
Indeed, Mr. Toppit’s true stars are these “real” characters. And its true focus is the story of the Chronicles’ rise to cult fame—a story marked by events both absurd and tragic, the first of which is when Arthur Hayman, the books’ relatively unsuccessful author, is hit by a cement truck in the middle of London and spends his dying moments with Laurie Clow, an overweight and equally misunderstood American tourist.
Laurie is so moved by the encounter that she goes on to (almost serendipitously) bring the series to renown, and in the process fundamentally alters the lives of Arthur’s children: Luke, who is reluctantly immortalized as the oeuvre’s famous hero, and Rachel, who markedly makes no appearance at all. As Hayseed mania grows, the siblings confront the mess their father—the true Mr. Toppit, some might say—has left for them, and in turn confront larger issues of family and obligation, celebrity and privacy, and the vast gulf between British and American sensibilities.
From the comically bland sitting rooms of middle-class England to the boozy shenanigans of modern-day Los Angeles, Mr. Toppit shows the effects of legacy on its inheritors, while at the same time exploring the way in which we use fantasy worlds to better understand our own.