Everything I know about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which precipitated WWI, I learned from fiction.

First, Aleksandar Hemon’s short story, “The Accordian”, which explores the very moment of the shots’ impact, inspired by the presence of a bystander. This man seems to be the author’s grandfather, standing in the crowd nearby, an accordian with a broken key in his hands.

“Most of this story is a consequence of irresponsible imagination and shameless speculation. (A case in point: the Archduke died in a car, which took a wrong turn and then virtually parked in front of the assassin, whose pants were soaked with urine.)”

Johan Tomes Thornton

Simon & Schuster – Touchstone, 2013

One might say the same of Ian Thornton’s debut novel, The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms.

Certainly Johan would have agreed with the ‘irresponsible’ bit. In Thornton’s imagination, Johan was driving the Archduke’s car, and Johan was the man who took a wrong turn. (He was thinking about naughty things, not about driving.)

He is wracked with guilt for having provoked a series of military conflicts, however, so while one might argue that such fictions are shameless, Johan’s character is truly shame-soaked.

Not to suggest that this is a dark tale oozing with lugubrious scenes.

“Blasphemers and infidels. Degenerates and heretics. What a joy!”

That’s right: it is a ribald, chaotic tale that is as much about joy as tragedy (or, perhaps more accurately, about the unexpected intersections between the comic and the tragic).

From its title, readers have a sense of the verbose and stylized contents of The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms.

Scanning the chapter headings, readers begin with “Around the Time When Adolf Was a Glint in His First Cousin’s Eye” and move through “A Sweet Deity of Debauchery” and “The Day Abu Hasan Broke Wind” (there is much talk of bottoms).

Ian Thornton’s prose is playful and careens from the shortest sentences (“I digress.”) to tangled masses of lists, quotations, letters, even chessboard layouts.

“They discussed Drago’s mental issues (Johan was quietly proud of them), Johan’s studies (they were thoroughly enjoyable), and the activities of the Black Hand (as individuals, they were not to be crossed at any time of day anywhere, even with a bunch of pals around, but Johan dismissed them as a serious political force, which surprised Kaunitz; the Count thought for a moment of delving further, but his mind wandered).”

This passage is relatively straightforward, and perhaps less flamboyant than many, but it serves to introduce the reader’s need to adjust reading pace accordingly and hints at the tone of the tale.

The pages of The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms appear to contain more letters than the pages of other books; the style is verbose and energetic, and afterthoughts and digressions are as significant as the plot.

Or, one might say, afterthoughts and digressions are the plot. Perhaps the hinges of history do turn on the lives of individuals, but Johan is simultaneously significant and meaningless, depending on one’s perspective.

And is that not true of each of us, to varying degrees. One person’s main event is another person’s digression. It is all relative, all inter-connected.

“This meant a total death toll, since that first bullet had entered Ferdinand’s neck outside Schiller’s sandwich shop, well into nine (and nearing ten) figures, all on Johan’s conscience. One billion, if one were to have counted the direct, the indirect, the secondary, the tertiary, and the more distant casualties, all relevant according to his massively engorged guilt gland.”

Johan feels responsible for all of these deaths. It is only his madness which shields him from the true enormity of his guilt, his “even deeper unshiftable regret”.

And there is another matter which haunts Johan as well. (But, there, spoilers lurk. We all know something of the Great War, but Johan Thom’s romance with Lorelei is yet to be explored.)

“Dorothy’s wish had been granted, for Johan Thoms was indeed in a trench. The deepest of psychotic trenches. He was in a self-induced, protective twilight world.”

(Dorothy, who? That’s Dorothy Parker. Johan gets to know a lot of interesting people while suffering his delusions and grappling with regret and overwhelming responsibility.)

When discussing the reasons that WWI appears frequently on the pages of Canadian fiction, Antanas Sileka refers to the fact that it was, arguably, the event which made a nation of Canada.*

Along the same lines, that wrong turn is, arguably, the event which made a character of Johan Tomes.

As the accordian with the broken key and the urine-soaked pants in Aleksander Hemon’s matter story, the details in The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms offer a peculiar and delightfully disorienting adjunct to the historical record.

Ian Thornton’s debut tells a great and calamitous tale with a light hand: irresponsibly, shamelessly, and boldly. (Enjoy the trailer below. It makes me smile.)

* “The Next Chapter”, Discussion with Shelagh Rogers, January 13, 2013: Podcast here

IFOASmallBadgeIan Thornton will be at this year’s IFOA. The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is my latest IFOA Wednesday read: great fun.