Andrew Ervin

Philadelphia Inquirer // Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Stranger in a strange flat
House-sitting for a persnickety pal, in a tale trying to be funny.
December 16, 2012
By Will Wiles

Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. 295 pp. $24

Reviewed by Andrew Ervin

In Care of Wooden Floors, a copywriter from London agrees to house-sit for an old college friend in a strange European city, and wackiness ensues. The tone of Will Wiles’ debut novel is farcical, and the story is rife with comedic elements, such as drunkenness and close attention to bodily functions. It’s a straightforward and traditional comedy of humors, which (unlike, say, a comedy of manners) attempts to draw laughs from the tensions between one or more archetypal or stock characters.

Our odd couple here consists of the absent owner of the flat, Oskar, and an unnamed narrator. Oskar is a classical musician and composer who wants to write a symphony based on the Dewey Decimal System and whose neat-freakishness borders on the obsessive-compulsive. He leaves extensive, detailed instructions for his house guest and shows particular concern for his wooden floor. Our narrator is a struggling writer who seeks a place to work one summer in an exotic foreign land:

I had taken up Oskar’s invitation and come here to his city in order to write and to be inspired, and I was thrilled – frankly, a sensation close to exhilaration – that in such a short space of time in unfamiliar surroundings I was already feeling more creative and the insights into detail were coming with the frequency they did.

As the title might indicate, things don’t go particularly well. A few stray drops of red wine on the bottom of an uncoastered glass leave a “livid surgical scar” on the “pale flesh” of the French oak floor. And it gets worse:

I was beginning to feel that this blemish was like a flash-shadow left after a photograph has been taken, a blob imprinted on the back of my eyes and nowhere else. I thought of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which a murderer is driven mad by the imagined audible beating of the heart of his victim, concealed under the floorboards of his room.

The audience for Care of Wooden Floors, then, is made up of readers of literary fiction who also don’t know the plot of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I have trouble envisioning how many people reside in the middle of that particular Venn diagram.

There isn’t much of what one might call a plot, so instead the book focuses on eight days of this guy’s experiences in a stuffy apartment. With nothing much to do, our hero spends his days drinking wine, playing with Oskar’s cats, and thinking about old times long enough to fill any number of flashbacks. The cats’ misadventures with a leather sofa and the heavy lid of the piano add to the trouble, as do a post-concert drinking session and a visit to a strip club with an obnoxious colleague of Oskar’s named Michael. None of these people is very likable or even all that interesting, except maybe the housekeeper, and she doesn’t fare all that well.

Personally, I have to question the intentional vagueness of the novel. We don’t know where this story takes place, other than in a post-Communist nation in central Europe. It could be Budapest or Bratislava or Prague. The implicit assumption that every non-English-speaking capital is alike opens up some unfortunate questions about outdated colonial notions.

While Wiles writes with keen attention to detail, he never passes up the chance to tell the reader what s/he is supposed to be thinking. He’s a big fan of adverbs. One paragraph alone includes apparently, possibly, impossibly, perfectly, and antiseptically. The squishiest word in the English language – seemed appears three times in the span of six lines. The book isn’t as funny as it tries to be, but, in all fairness, few books are.

The Elephas maximus in our cubiculum is that this novel comes to us courtesy of the bots of Amazon.com and its new publishing venture, and at times it does feel more aggregated than crafted. To find a copy you may need to shop online instead of at one of our fair city’s great independent bookshops, such as the Big Blue Marble or the Spiral Bookcase. It’s a breezy and amusing-enough read, but I can’t help feeling that these 300 pages contain a spectacular short story itching to get free.