You Can’t Beat a Dead Man
A family drama seen from a unique perspective
Walter van den Berg grew up in a seedy neighbourhood, about which he has written two well-received, evocative novels. In this latest book he returns to Amsterdam West in the 1970s, where a new man arrives on the scene soon after his father’s death. Rather than a lifesaver, the stepfather turns out to be a violent character who dominates both mother and son.
Like David Vann and Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life), Walter van den Berg draws on his own past, but gives this novel a striking and utterly convincing twist by telling the story from the stepfather’s point of view, addressing his stepchild: ‘You shouldn’t expect much of a haircut. Someone told me that. About your mum. They said she’d come and do your hair at home for a tenner and that she was a tasty bit of skirt too, but you shouldn’t expect much of a haircut.’
Fairly soon after the stepfather moves in, it becomes obvious he is bad news. When he goes to fetch his things from his old house, he makes use of the opportunity to smash the neighbours’ windows. He takes Wesley to a bar, sits him in front of the television for hours and eventually drives him home blind drunk. His mother objects but is all-too-quickly reassured, as she seems to have no resistance to this man’s charms. The stepfather tries in vain to drive a wedge between mother and son by winning the boy over.
The book’s tragedy lies in the character of Wesley, who loses his father and gets a terrible role model in exchange. It’s the stuff of melodrama, but Van den Berg injects a good deal of humour and his chosen perspective gives everything a quite different feel.
We see Wesley through the eyes of his stepfather, who abandons the family, disappearing from sight until he recognizes himself in a monstrous character in a video game created by computer nerd Wesley. His tone is as sinister as ever: ‘When that game of yours came out, “Be the Monster”, I wasn’t pleased. You understand that.’