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Reviews of ‘Cara Massimina’

The New Yorker, 29 March , 1993

Morris Duckworth, the anti-hero of Tim Parks’s sixth novel, is an arrogant, impoverished English tutor marooned in Verona, unhappily sucking up to the dumb, rich Italian students who pay his rent. Meanwhile, the life of ease and erudition for which he feels destined is passing him by. Then Morris steals an elegant Gucci briefcase on impulse and decides that he may be a criminal genius. Before long, he has eloped with one of his wealthy students, a sweet Italian girl, whose strict family fears that she has been kidnapped. Or has she been kidnapped, and is she just too besotted with her attractive kidnapper to notice? The unbalanced Morris, elated and terrified by his rapidly complicating life, cannot seem to decide: he grows attached to his unsuspecting sweetheart while sending gruesome ransom notes off to her relatives on the sly. Parks has long been an expert on the marriage of convenience between sin and rationalization and much of the humor and the suspense here come from wondering how long Morris will be able to excuse his increasingly – alarmingly- inexcusable behaviour. Yet, while this is a considerably more violent book than the author’s recent domestic novels, it also seems less serious – a surprisingly lighthearted, if dark, entertainment.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance

Psychopath Juggling the Stars

A Novel of Menace By Tim Parks

The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 11 April 1993

By Tim Appelo

In 1979, a student at a Tacoma, Wash., junior high wrote the following Social Studies report about a bright local collegian named Ted Bundy, then much in the news: “He was our babysitter. He was not a very nice babysitter. He would play games and scare us and then say they were just games.” I was the Social Studies teacher, and I have never read a more insightful critique of the psychotic personality.
But Tim Parks’s Juggling the Stars is a close second. Like the child ‘Bundy babysat, Parks grasps the essence of the killer’s madness, the obsession with domination games, the mimicry of normal human behavior and emotions. Parks’s protagonist, a Cambridge-educated British psycho named Morris Duckworth, has more in common with Bundy: the loneliness of the long-distance social climber, an inability to tolerate his own well-earned failure in life, a cowardly, cagey, gradual approach to ultimate crime. Like Bundy, Morris grows from petty thief to sociopath. clever in short-term improvisation yet prone to breathtaking feats of self-defeating idiocy. And like Bundy, he only weeps for himself.

Morris teeters on the brink of mayhem while tutoring coddled upper-class twits in Italy. Sunk in self-pitying Raskolnikovian gloom, he hatches a plot to elope with a rich, Gina-Lollobrigidesque teenager from Verona – either that or to kidnap her. He is not quite sure which. Abhorring decisions, he prefers to mull things over endlessly. Heitsing 17-year-old Massimina and spiriting her crosscountry is, he muses in compulsive congratulation, “The pertect synthesis of class warfare and womanizing.” But Morris is no womanizer, and as snobs go, he’s in a class by himself. Emotionally pistol-whipped by his virile philistine dad, clutched in bed to the abundant bosom of his smothering esthete mum, Morris grew up to be your basic depraved virgin.

To overwhelm his mighty misogynist defenses requires a virgin pure as driven snow, yet willing to drift. Voluptuous Massimina is slow even by Morris’s students’ standards; he can risk sending ransom notes to her folks and getting her face plastered all over every paper in the country, because she doesn’t read the papers. He just has to keep her away from TV and improvise lies good enough to gull her until they reach a certain chapel, where the cash is to be taped under a particular pew.