The Last Straw
A masterful game of cat and mouse between author and reader
Tom writes self-help books about how to become clutter-free in every way. He is an expert in note-taking, tidying up, organising and streamlining. What his philosophy comes down to is that people should focus on maintaining an orderly life. Keep your possessions to a minimum and close the door behind you to shut out other people’s chaos. ‘Any mess that isn’t inside should stay outside.’ He knows what he eats on which day of the week and has his daily schedule worked out down to the hour, and this gives him a sense of peace.
He divorced his wife because he could no longer deal with her clutter. His seventeen-year-old son David is the only person who is allowed into his private sanctum – on the agreed days, that is. He’s allowed to make a mess, but only in the part of the attic that Tom has converted into a bedroom for him.
When the doorbell rings one day and cops come bounding up the stairs after his son has buzzed them in without thinking, suddenly the unexpected comes crashing into his tidy existence. The police aren’t there for him but for his upstairs neighbour, Gerard de Vries, who has been accused of stalking his ex-wife. From that moment Tom’s tranquil life is under threat. He worries that the neighbour is holding a grudge against him for having opened the door. Once Gerard has been released Tom keeps hearing noises upstairs and begins to suspect that his neighbour is following him and intends to harm him. His paranoia rapidly spirals out of control, until the proverbial last straw: he storms out of his apartment in a fit of anger and gives his neighbour a shove, causing him to fall down the stairs and die.
Tom’s story is interspersed with emails between Gerard and a writing coach. Gerard is looking for help writing stories that aren’t true but seem true.
Since we see things from Tom’s perspective, Baas viscerally conveys the sense of a mind unravelling. Before the fatal encounter in the stairwell, the prose becomes clipped and staccato. Afterwards the sentences get longer again, but Tom still can’t find peace. He goes looking for Gerard’s ex-wife. What’s happened to the lifeless body at the bottom of the stairs, and what was David doing in his room upstairs while all this was going on? Baas subtly ratchets up the tension with every page.