Slip Knot

Tom Lutz, Born Slippy: A Novel

Repeater Books, 310pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781912248643

reviewed by Jon Doyle

‘What sick shit within you responds to him?’ asks a girlfriend of Frank Baltimore, the protagonist of Tom Lutz’s debut novel, Born Slippy. She’s referring to Frank’s intermittent friend/failed co-worker Dmitry, and it’s a good question. Because Frank is a humble man, a carpenter who builds homes with his hands to save money for his estranged children. Dmitry is at best a shallow chauvinist, at worst a sociopathic and misogynistic pig. A man who slips out of any knot, who lives purely to travel the globe and con people, amassing wealth and attempting to satisfy his seemingly boundless libido.

The pair meet in New England at the turn of the 21st century, where Frank is building a house on the promise of forging a larger construction partnership with the client. The situation is far from perfect, Frank working for a basic wage, living in a tent on-site, filling his spare time reading books to quell the nagging suspicion he’s being played. When a friend calls by, telling Frank that a British nephew of his is travelling to the US on a pre-college trip, asking whether there is any work for him in Connecticut, Frank is only half listening. ‘He doesn’t work out,’ the friend says, ‘you let him go.’

When the teenage Dmitry arrives, he certainly doesn’t ‘work out’, though letting him go is not so simple. Despite his obvious charisma, the boy is a lazy slob, and a magnet for morally dubious, sometimes even illegal happenings. From the moment he arrives in Frank’s life, it becomes clear he will only ever leave on his own terms. It doesn’t matter that he sabotages the construction with shoddy workmanship, destroying any remaining hope that Frank might see his planned windfall. Or that he takes some of Frank’s savings, or cuckolds the boss’s wife, or starts up a prostitution business with the women at a local strip bar. Frank starts out irritated by Dmitry, then becomes disgusted; but is unwilling or unable to remove the kid from his life.

Lutz asks the question: why do seemingly morally upstanding men let immorality into their lives? Do they hang around the greedy and wealthy in the hope some of it might rub off? Frank considers himself a literary man, philosophically minded, yet is still motivated by desire. Desire for wealth, for women, for respect and power. He might intuit these longings to be poisonous, but yearns for them nonetheless; would grab them with both hands if they weren’t almost certainly unattainable.

But then along comes Dmitry, and with him the idea that you can get what you want and avoid the consequences. Success, Dmitry shows, is a matter of guile and exploitation. A matter of winning. Through Frank, Lutz captures the Western male in all his dichotomous glory – the ethical, idealist front undermined by less-than-pure depths, the drive to conquer intellect and reason. It is as though Frank is so enchanted by the lure of capitalism that he’s become hardwired to betray himself, not necessarily in order to achieve wealth, but to merely keep its vague promise alive. To hold on to the dream that, in some unspecified future, he too might be rich and powerful; a real man.

After the work in Connecticut goes south, Dmitry escapes across the Atlantic, reappearing two years later after a fraudulent stint playing the Asian markets at the London School of Economics. ‘I’ve decided it would be a gigantic error to settle for being a capitalist pig,’ he tells Frank later, ‘when I can, with not an iota’s more effort, be an imperialist pig.’ The LSE might not have approved of his methods, but Dmitry makes many people very rich in a short space of time. And although the money doesn’t last, the scheme is a perfect introduction to the world of banking. ‘Risk is the essence of our world, Franky,’ Dmitry declares on his return, already hatching larger plans. ‘Risk [. . .] makes the world go around.’

What follows for Dmitry is essentially a career in neo-imperialism, touring the East to avail himself of whatever he pleases, be it money or sex. His unique blend of charisma and reptilian calculation sits easily with the logic of late capitalism. He’s cold enough to exploit people and wily enough to get away with it – and soon he is a multibillionaire managing (and laundering) the wealth of the world’s most powerful and despicable men. Dictators, oligarchs, arms dealers, Dmitry services them all for a cut, dancing with the devils because the devils have the cash. It’s dangerous, of course, but after all, risk makes the world go around.

The true test of a successful capitalist is not how they string together winning schemes, but rather how they evade losses, how they can emerge from the worst-case scenario still afloat; fall into shit and come up smelling of roses. Failure is only failure if it sticks, and Dmitry is the ultimate Teflon man. Lutz gives us an example of this when an explosion rips through Dmitry’s bank office in Taipei, a development that wouldn’t be out of place in a Graham Greene thriller. Dmitry is missing, presumed dead. The prologue finds Frank reading about the bomb blast with growing dread. Although Al Jazeera blames radical Islamists, he knows Dmitry is involved. ‘This fiery mess, or something like it, was bound to happen. He’d been expecting it for years.’

Driven by a confusing mix of emotions, Frank travels to Asia to care for Dmitry’s family, and to figure out what has happened:

‘Frank felt, what? Foreboding? Mourning, almost. Did he lecture Dmitry that much? Maybe he did. Why? Obviously it did no good. They had been talking about ethics for over a decade now, and he was more glaringly amoral every time Frank saw him. [So why continue?] Did some part of Dmitry want to be talked out of this life he’d chosen? Did he want moral support and guidance, however much he said he didn’t? Or what?’

However, Frank’s time in Asia suggests an ulterior motive. Instead of comforting Dmitry’s grieving widow, Yuli, he falls in love with her. The pair consummate their relationship, though not before Frank enjoys a similar tryst with Yuli’s drunken younger sister. While these infractions are occurring, Frank unearths the truth of Dmitry’s dealings with war criminals, major transgressions against which he can justify his own more human misdemeanours. Perhaps, then, he is attracted to his friend not by the promise of what Dmitry has, nor indeed the noble possibility of 'saving' him, but rather because knowing someone more terrible than oneself is a convenient way to justify one’s worst excesses.

Born Slippy finds no clear answer as to what Frank responds to in Dmitry, but in asking the question Lutz picks at the messy knot at the heart of Western culture, where the threads of masculinity and capitalism are tangled tight.

Jon Doyle is currently working on his debut novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Swansea University. His writing has appeared in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 3:AM Magazine, Cardiff Review and other places, and he runs the arts website Various Small Flames.