The Man Who Died was my favourite book of 2017, so I picked up Antti Tuomainen’s latest, Palm Beach Finland, with high expectations. The Man presented perceptive observations of everyday life within a plot structure that was outrageously preposterous. In Palm Beach Finland, Tuomainen dials things up still further with a plot and set of characters leaning towards the absurd.
We’re told this is a comic thriller with nods to Fargo, and I have Tuomainen to thank for my finally watching the Coen Brothers masterpiece. Palm Beach Finland is certainly comic, though I wouldn’t say it is a thriller: the circumstances are too ridiculous and we simply don’t care about whose madcap scheme comes up trumps. Which is not at all the same thing as saying that we don’t care about the characters: they are all too joyously drawn for that.
Jorma Leivo has a dream. He loves holiday resorts but doesn’t love the sun: a sun-less resort should clean up. He creates the turquoise and pastel Palm Beach Finland: a resort that is high on kitsch but low on the possibility to sunbathe. But there is something standing between Jorma and his dream: a house and a plot of land. Other characters have their own dreams which are not compatible with Jorma’s plans. How Jorma tackles this challenge, and how the other people pursue their own paths, is the tale.
The narration is laden with jokes: some obvious and perhaps pedantic:
The brand-new yellow-and-brown van he’d arrived in bore the words KUURAINEN AND COMPANY – PLUMBING SOLUTIONS, so [he] must have been either Kuurainen or Company
while others stem from a slightly stripped down and sarcastic tone of voice
Judging by what was happening in the man’s eyes, in the areas around his eyes, and from his movements and the grip of his hand, Nyman decided that the man’s name either was Esa Koljonen or it wasn’t
It’s funnier than I have given it credit for. And it leads to what I think is one of the great strengths of the book: that although it finds its characters crazy, and their actions ludicrous, it presents those dreams, no matter how unconventional or unlikely, in a relatively straight way (even though they are indeed madcap). It’s up to us as readers to work out whether the ideas stand up: Tuomainen suggests that Chico’s dream to be Finland’s Bruce Springsteen is no more or no less strange than the inner life had by us as readers. The effect is to encourage us to challenge our own ideas as to what makes a fulfilled life and means that the novel stands head and shoulders over other dark comedies. Tuomainen is having a great time (and I assume translator David Hackston is too): he’s following his dream and a rather sympathetic and just-the-right-side of sentimental ending suggests that maybe we should too.
I am not sure that Palm Beach Finland hits the heights of The Man Who Died: the earlier book has a semblance of groundedness that is not possible here. But once again Antti Tuomainen demonstrates a willingness to push boundaries and prove that slapstick need not be shallow.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy. We are hosting the Palm Beach Finland tour today and you should check out the other participants. Here they are: