Mr. Timothy

by Louis Bayard

Published by HarperCollins

384 pages, 2003




Tiny Tim Sings a New Christmas Carol

Reviewed by David Abrams


As a die-hard fan of Charles Dickens, it pains me to admit this: I never liked Tiny Tim. The same goes for The Old Curiosity Shop's Little Nell, Dombey and Son's small Paul Dombey and any other diminutive Dickens characters who unequivocally represent Goodness and Mercy with a straight face. Dickens was at his best when injecting his characters with darkness and wit. His sweet creations -- most of them angelic children -- often curdled the page.

And let's face it: Tim Cratchit, with his feeble voice, withered little hand and chirpy "God Bless Us, Everyone," is like a sugar cookie coated in caramel and dunked in hot cocoa. His righteousness is just too much for me to bear, even at Christmastime.

Thank heavens, then, for Louis Bayard, who reinvents the plucky little cripple in his new novel, Mr. Timothy. This book takes up Tim's story during the Christmas season of 1860 -- nearly two decades after the events recounted in A Christmas Carol. The treacly souled boy is now a 23-year-old man, healed of his disability ("all that's left, really, is the limp, which to hear others tell it is not a limp but a lilt, a slight hesitation my right leg makes before greeting the pavement, a metrical shyness"). He's living in a London brothel, teaching the madam there how to read, and wandering the streets, trying to shake off the ghost of his recently deceased father, the kindly clerk Bob Cratchit.

(No matter how outraged you might feel about revising Dickens, Bayard's book pales in that endeavor beside this season's TV movie A Carol Christmas, starring Tori Spelling in the Scrooge role, with William Shatner as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Gary Coleman as the Ghost of Christmas Past: "whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Ebenezer?!")

Ebenezer Scrooge, dubbed "Uncle N" by the Cratchit children, also weighs heavy on Tim's mind. The reformed miser engages in "relentless philanthropy" in his born-again life. The last we heard of him in the closing paragraphs of Dickens' Christmas fable, "He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." Post-Carol, Scrooge has become an amateur naturalist specializing in fungi, and he carries his promise to "honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year " a bit too far. His apartment is cluttered with Yuletide decorations, now dusty and moldy from years of constant display -- one example of Bayard's irreverent attitude toward the source material.

We also learn that Scrooge hired "galloping hordes of doctors" to treat Tiny Tim's leg, paying for therapeutic visits to Bath and Brighton, and buying the boy's affection with "gifts, tokens and knickknacks." Eventually, the Cratchit family's pride swelled:

As the months pass, and as the attentions increase, another possibility dawns on [Tim]. Perhaps this gentleman has divined something in him -- some germ of potential waiting to be cultured. And in this way, the boy becomes slowly acculturated to his own mythos, and over time, so does the rest of his family. With mysterious unanimity, they accept the central premise of the story -- that great things are expected of this boy.

And so, Timothy Cratchit roams the thoroughfares of London, searching for his destiny. What he finds instead are dead bodies -- specifically, the corpses of two 10-year-old girls, each branded with a mysterious "G," one discovered sprawled in an alley, the other dredged from the Thames. Just who is committing these murders, and why? Those questions form the heart of the book's plot -- which is standard, connect-the-dots stuff as far as Victorian-era thrillers go. There are a couple of exciting moments near the climax, but most readers will untangle the mystery long before Tim does.

It's in the telling of the tale that Mr. Timothy excels. Bayard, a Washington, D.C., author with two previous novels to his credit (Fool's Errand and Endangered Species), has crafted a book of which the Inimitable Boz himself would be proud. Adopting a neo-Victorian prose style, the author peppers his pages with Dickensian wit and, above all, memorable characters. Witness this description of a lawyer hired to represent Tim against criminal charges:

Augustus Sheldrake squeezes his way through the station-house door. A stout, whey-skinned man with a decamping hairline and advancing whiskers, soldierly red on both fronts. The hand he presents to me is quite damp, and there is a prevailing humidity all about his person: wet eyes, wet lips, wet teeth ... and, exhaling from his pores, an effluvium that, unless my nostrils deceive me, represents the final gaseous iteration of imported Jamaican rum.

Tim is joined in his adventures by Captain Gully, an ebullient man with a wrench (instead of a hook) for a hand -- a fellow straight out of Dickens' imagination (think Captain Cuttle, from Dombey and Son). There's also an Artful Dodger-like street urchin known as Colin the Melodious (for his beautiful singing voice) and Philomela, a suspicious waif (also marked with a "G") whom Tim rescues from a menacing man in a carriage.

But it's Not-So-Tiny Tim who really carries this novel with his melancholy, angst-ridden narration. Here is a soul wrestling with his past, which has become something of a myth and a burden. Bayard allows Tim to wink at his fictive self, at one point complaining about the prison of literature in which Dickens has jailed him. He tries to write his own story, reinventing himself as a character ("This boy ... this new boy ... well, he was much angrier, for one thing, terribly angry. And funnier, too: that was a surprise."). And, of course, Bayard is doing the same thing in Mr. Timothy: sledgehammering that little Hummel figurine of Tiny Tim we've treasured in our heads all these years, reducing the brave, limping, cherub-hearted child to a powdery dust, then reconstructing him into something resembling a real person. | December 2003


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.