Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It all started with a little assassination...

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One absent-minded moment and some trouble with driving in reverse: that's all it takes for a vehicle to go off-course and, if Ian Thornton is telling the tale, for history itself to be fatally derailed, resulting in calamity after mindless calamity falling like dominoes through the ages.

The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is the Toronto-based writer's first novel, but its ambitions are grand: it analyzes the principle of cause-and-effect through the historical assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in 1914.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were riding in a motorcade through Sarajevo when a wrong turn by their car's driver brought them face-to-face with their assassins. This event helped kick-start the First World War.

Out of the murk of history Thornton plucks the unfortunate cabbie, renames him Johan Thoms, turns him into a large-headed, golden-haired genius, and makes him the star of this novel.

For his accidental role in the 1914 tragedy, Thoms shoulders a massive burden of guilt and runs from the arms of his beautiful American girlfriend into a lifetime of paranoid wandering.

It could be a grim tale. But Thornton heaps sorrows onto Thoms' oversized noggin with all the solemnity of a toddler loading ornaments onto a Christmas tree.

Soon, the conceit that Thoms alone is to blame for every disaster after 1914 becomes central to the novel.

Thornton maintains a ruthlessly cheerful approach to his subject. Cameos of popular historical figures (Hemingway, Orwell and Wilde) sprinkle the plot and quotes from poets and songwriters both long-dead and modern begin each chapter.

Thornton takes cheeky delight in all the name-dropping without worrying overly about historical exactitude. He rarely bothers to get into the heads of his protagonists, instead maintaining a third-person omniscient voice and a summative style.

The result reads like a lengthy Wikipedia entry spliced with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris mashed up with a Harlequin Blaze, with a side of circus-tent antics (at one point, literally).

Thoms pays little attention to the supposed social austerity of the post-Victorian era, and intersperses the Ferdinand disaster narrative with mindless orgies and weeks-long sexual marathons, which, while they add levity, sometimes feel pointless rather than gratifying.

Thoms is clearly not a historical novel, but a modern novel toying with historical tropes. In its jovial relaunching of familiar legends, it bears resemblance to Natalee Caple's recent historical novel In Calamity's Wake, a meditation on the life of Calamity Jane, but it lacks Wake's heart and lyricism.

Thoms' plot requires both the reader's indulgence (in Thoms' teeth-grindingly one-track-mindedness) and so much suspension of disbelief that the burden of holding it all up is ultimately more tiring than fun.

Take Thoms' supposed genius: after one victory at chess early in the novel, his rare intelligence is never demonstrated. "Balls to the outbursts, you rotter," Thoms tells himself at one point. "The madness suits you well."

It doesn't, not really -- Thoms is a classic narcissist, and his story is less "great" than he thinks it is.

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A1

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