Book review: Toploader

It’s sometime in the present. There’s an army that, in the certitude of the righteous, has walled in all the ‘terrorists’ of the region in an Embargoed Zone. There are ‘bomb donkeys,’ the Trojan Horse’s descendant. There are hapless soldiers who watch religious programmes on TV when not bombing the living daylights out of ‘terrorists’. There are relentless drones droning overhead and pompous journalists whose pomposity is counterbalanced by their ignorance of the realities of the war. There is a vile Colonel, a heinous Captain and ‘Cobra’, a bumbling spy. Then, of course, there is the hapless citizenry of the Zone, forever shot at and living a life of great depredation… people who don’t know why exactly they have been classified as ‘terrorists’.

Is it Catch-22, you ask. Well, yes and no. This is what Yossarian and Co. would, in all probability, be doing in the present times. This is the mess they would be in, with the ‘civilised’ countries of the world declaring war on those they perceive as sitting ducks. And this is how Colonel Cathcart and Milo Minderbinder, master manipulators, would manage things, to survive in a situation that is anything but normal.

But Catch-22’s big cast has a host of immensely likeable characters whereas Top Loader’s characters are all placed at one remove from the reader, deliberately so. That distance stays put and even as we grimace at the shenanigans of the oppressors, and get the utter futility of it all, we never feel for the victims. Perhaps Ed O’Loughlin wants it that way.

The book opens with a ‘bomb donkey’ that dutifully goes off, and almost immediately descends into controlled chaos, ending with more donkeys and a PETA representative in the Zone. The prose is crisp and straight-faced irony runs a sharp thread through the telling of this crazy tale. The title refers to a top loader washing machine which is suspected to have a chip inserted in it by the Righteous Army for extremely convoluted reasons… but then purportedly falls into enemy hands.

Purportedly is, of course, the leitmotif of Top Loader. We read of anti-terrorist bomb dolphins. We also learn that fuzzy logic is what works on both sides of the Zone… but of course.

For its wry tone, the horrors of an unasked for war come through loud as gunfire. Scenes of mayhem are etched evocatively enough for the reader to wince. “Tell me Colonel,” the captain asks his superior officer, “is there no problem you won’t try and solve by throwing ordnance at it?” Clearly more satire than comedy, Top Loader’s is bleak comedy. Compellingly bleak.