The Inside Out Man (Book Review)
by Fred Strydom
The Inside Out Man is a mind-trip of a novel about the effects of self-isolation and the lengths we’ll go to lie to ourselves in the guise of self-discovery.
Brilliant jazz pianist Bent lives from gig to gig in a city of dead ends. He is plagued by fragmented visions of the past, and has resigned himself to a life of quiet desolation. That is, until the night he meets wealthy and eccentric jazz fan Leonard Fry.
In the days that follow, Leonard makes Bent a devilish deal, proposing a bizarre experiment in which Bent will play a vital part.
The deal provides an opportunity for Bent to start afresh, to question everything he knows, and for the two men to move beyond the one terrifying frontier from which neither of them can be sure they’ll ever return: the borders of their own sanity.
If you like evocative prose and interesting descriptions, you will enjoy the prose of this novel quite a bit. For example, “It’s dark and warm inside. Not the good kind of warmth, mind you, the kind that hugs you in your bed in winter, but the warmth of sweaty bodies and backroom generators and things decaying in drains.”
Bent is self-deprecating enough to be relatable but not enough that he comes off as a pretentious whiner. He has a pretty tough life - he lives in a dumpy apartment, he’s alone, and he scrapes by playing piano gigs at bars. He had a rough childhood too, so his demeanour and despondency make sense. He’s not depressing though, which is a hard balance to perfect. I liked him.
The setting is also interesting because one hand you have Bent’s initial living arrangement that gets a lot of detail, but later on there’s a mansion he spends a lot of time in, and it doesn’t get a lot of description at all aside from his first visit. Yet, this has a purpose as well as an almost thematic suggestion that wealth isn’t real. The book is deeper than you think, even while reading it. Which is why it’s so compelling. When you get to the end, you grasp its almost deeper argument, if I can call it that.
The book isn’t perfect - there are some questions I had about Bent’s life between his current age and his teenage years, the third quarter gets a little bit off-track, there’s some fat-shaming that was unnecessary, the italicized dialogue was annoying, and at times it comes off as trying a bit too hard to be lofty. When he succeeds at a “literary” sentence, he nails it, but some of them fall flat. Most don’t.
Likewise, the third quarter of the book I’d say trails off a bit too long in a direction that feels not cliche but overdone in this genre, though the twist at the end of the novel is so good it redeems this and, actually, I’m not sure the twist would have worked without it. And like all good twists, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. When it happened I was like, damn I should have guessed, but the hints it dropped weren't so much hints but random spots on a map that, when connected, make sense. They aren’t clues unless you piece them all together after you read the whole thing.
The book teases you a bit. I couldn’t put it down.