Book Review: ‘A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne

In October 2015, at age 57, having lived in New York City for 35 years, I followed my husband to his new job at a Midwestern university. We joked about young men everywhere, and how the sight might make us long for our lost youth. Indeed, when we first visited, the summer before moving, the youth factor was a bit overwhelming. Would the young men view us old guys with distain, as irrelevant or out-of-touch?

In Manhattan, achievement, including youthful achievement, is everywhere, but diluted. New York City is actually occupied by many ordinary Joes and Janes, and that’s mostly who I saw and spoke to. But I imagined this small college town being wall-to-wall young people with bright futures, all of them of course bound to succeed where I once failed, of course fit and beautiful as I wasn’t, of course barely recognizing me.

But I got there and I took a few deep breaths and I (re)learned a few things. Young people, in fact, don’t automatically regard middle-aged people as old and out-of-touch. They roll their eyes about parents or professors in real life, college kids do not continually cut older people with ageist slurs. I now have some real and true friends under 25. They are warm, sympathetic and devoted. I asked one of them about the stereotype of youthful contempt for middle age, and she agreed that this is more a media trope than a real thing. Similarly, us older people don’t go around in thrall to youthful good looks and talent, fantasizing that those beautiful, disdainful kids will all win Nobels and Pulitzers and have perfect lives. Young people are people, even the most talented of them, and every life has twists and turns. By age 60, we have learned this.

John Boyne’s melodrama, A Ladder to the Sky, asks us to accept a number of clichés, chief among them youth’s cutting disdain for middle age and the sighing of middle age over perfect, beautiful, bound-for-glory youth. As a corollary, Boyne also suggests that the most dogged pursuit of writers and writing students—more dogged than writing itself—is gleefully dismemberment of one another using gossip, harsh judgement, invidious comparisons, and plain meanness. The writers in Ladder to the Sky, the old and the young, don’t seem to derive much joy from writing, but give them a colleague to vivisect, and they bring every ounce of wit and energy to the task.

The novel begins in West Berlin, in 1988. Erich Ackerman, German-born, a successful but perhaps not great writer, who passed his youth as a Wehrmacht functionary, is now in his sixties and needs an assistant. Enter Maurice Swift, a young writer just making his start. Ackerman, who is gay, sighs over the young man’s beauty and the promise presumed to go with it, but he keeps some distance. It is hinted that Swift could be queer, if it would get him ahead. Over the months, Ackerman confides to Swift the story of the love he bore a straight friend during the War. The friend became engaged to a Jewish girl, and Ackerman, in order to hang on to the friend, betrayed the fiancée and her family to the Gestapo.

Before we know it, Swift has produced his first novel—Two Germans—the publication of which ruins Ackermann. So, we must buy another cliché: those who are ever so young-beautiful-promising are all sociopaths, even as they go on being breathtakingly, frustratingly young-beautiful-promising. But then Swift’s second novel fails. For his third, he justifies stealing the work of his novelist wife and passing it off as his own. She discovers the deception and then dies “accidentally.” Swift takes up editing a literary magazine and steals from rejected stories in order to piece together novels four and five. He has a son with a surrogate. The son dies at thirteen but seems eerily resurrected a few years later in the person of one Theo Field, an undergrad who engages in an epic pub crawl with the alcoholic Swift, the hook being, he’s writing a thesis on him. (Take note: “Field” in German is “Acker.”) Field’s and Swift’s interactions lead to yet another series of sociopathic set pieces, with the young, yet again, trying to destroy the old.

The great pleasure of Boyne’s novel is the schadenfreude. If you like to see bad guys get comeuppance, you will be more than satisfied when Swift is brought low, repeatedly. Unfortunately, as a sociopath, Swift can learn nothing. He justifies every offense and just keeps offending. He does not gain our sympathy, nor do those who fall for his good looks and great promise. They are as addicted to Swift as Swift is to serving his ego. Creating (and destroying) Swift must have been great fun for the author, and occasionally it is fun for the reader, too, but the lack of genuine humanizing elements makes those dark joys short lived.