Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett has been many things over his long career, but he's never before been Charles Dickens. With Dodger, Pratchett tries to correct that, with an adventurous story set in a mildly fictionalized early-Victorian England (perhaps the homeland version of the world of Nation) about a young man of humble birth but incredible talents.

Pratchett still isn't all that much like Dickens -- for all of the talk about Dickens's sentimentality, he killed off plenty of sympathetic characters in his bloody 19th century way, and Pratchett could never be that cruel. And Dickens's characters were never as omnicompetent as the smart and sneaky eponymous hero is in Dodger. But, for a simulacrum of Dickens a hundred and fifty years later -- for a novel that tries to be to 2012 what Dickens was to the 1850s and '60s -- Dodger fits the bill closely.

As noted, Dodger himself is an urchin of the street, a tosher -- who mucks about in the sewers to find valuables -- and, unlike what Dickens might have done, he is not a boy of the upper or merchant classes fallen on hard times, but a boy born in the gutter but looking, now and then, out of it. Besides his individually plausible street-smarts, preternatural ability at finding worthwhile objects in the cloaca of London, fighting skill, and position as one of the best-known and respected lower-class men of the city, he's also living with a Jewish jeweler with his own secret depths and unlikely knowledge. (Though that, of course, is utterly Dickensian, and so entirely in character for a novel like Dodger.)

We meet Dodger in the first pages, as he leaps out of a sewer on a dark, rainy night to save a nameless young woman from thugs -- she has fled their cruel care, and Dodger thumps them and keeps her free. Miraculously, two gentlemen witness this feat, and they're both honest, liberal, and later famous -- Dickens himself and the reformer Henry Mayhew -- and so they take the nameless woman (later called Simplicity) in hand and deliver her to Mayhew's house to recuperate in secret.

Of course the forces that had Simplicity in durance vile will not rest, and of course they are powerful and well-connected -- though I won't explain further who she is or who they are -- which leads to the expected derring-do and adventures. (More than Dickens would have provided, actually -- Dodger is a high-speed novel, and Dickens's audience always wanted more about people and society, which young Dodger only interacts with, in his own brash way, intermittently, and without any real bite.)

Dodger, I have to say, is one of those heroes who can do no wrong and around whom events bend to create the happiest of all possibly happy endings. He and Simplicity do appear to be in danger, once in a while, but it's not a particularly convincing appearance; Dodger is simply too competent and too much loved by his Creator to come to any harm. And the novel that bears his name is not one of Pratchett's best, though it is compulsively readable and comprehensively entertaining, as we've come to expect from Pratchett.

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