Oliver Watson, (age 12), appears to be a dullard at school. However, unknown to his teachers, his parents and, indeed, anyone bar those who need to know, he is the real owner of a multi-billion dollar empire, the third – later, fourth – richest man in the world.
At first, the reader is – well, I was – confused. A fantasy, right? Well, for Lieb maybe, but for Watson, for his parents, his teachers, his classmates, and for his world, it’s real. I sense a certain ‘What if that had been true for me?’ in Lieb’s writing. It’s a great fantasy. What if that child we were at school, largely ignored, underestimated, rather foolish, had had the wit of an adult and the resources of the super-rich? It’s a fantasy a lot of people can sign up for.
Well, not me, sorry. I actually had a pretty good time at school, and it’s only now listening to others banging on about it I realise how lucky I was. No, my lost opportunities were at University. You know how it is when the girl you fancied like hell at university but never thought you had a chance with says to you, decades later, ‘I wanted to get you in to bed, why didn’t you respond?’ and you spend the rest of your life kicking yourself? Well, that’s me. And not just one. Several. As for being told that Jessica and Jane wanted to try lesbian and wanted me there as an intermediary but I wouldn’t take the hint, try taking that on board and saying one should have no regrets in life. Oh, you may think that’s easy, but –
I’m sorry. I have no idea why I mentioned that. Been thinking about it a lot lately. Well, for ages, actually. Sorry, where were we? Oh yes, the book review.
It’s good. Don’t get me wrong. There are some hilarious passages, some real laugh-out-loud knockabout stuff, but in the end the premise is so convoluted that it lacks charm. There’s something about having a child who is just a child talking about it all as with dear Nigel Molesworth without all the bangs and whistles that works where this doesn’t. It’s too exaggerated. As a scenario, in its exaggeration it opens up new avenues in terms of comedic possibility, certainly; but not to such a great extent that it makes it worth the complexity. It may have been better as two works; one with, say, the underestimated, unnoticed office clerk who is a secret billionaire by night; the other, the child at school who’s cleverer than people think he is.
The worst thing about the book arises out of this convolution, and that’s a mawkish sub-plot. Dear Oliver thinks he hates his dad and has discounted his opinion on anything and everything from the get-go, but secretly, deep down, so deep down he doesn’t even know it himself, he cares what daddy thinks, and so he decides to put his whole empire behind an attempt at running for class president to show daddy what he can do. See, even though he’s a multi-billionaire, he’s a child at heart who – unknown even to himself – wants his daddy’s love and respect. Aw…
Well, bollocks to that, sorry Mr. Lieb. Sure, you’re never mawkish about it directly but still, it’s there, and it sucks. Oliver is a garish character, arguably too much so, and if you’re going to push the boat out that far then at least let it ride the waves with chaotic abandon, don’t try to ground the poor little bastard by giving him some little-boy vulnerability to please the crowd. They’re the wrong bleedin’ crowd. Anyone who needs that isn’t going to get off on the underlying premise in the first place.
To be fair on Lieb, I can’t help wondering if there was some editorial interference here. “It won’t work, Josh, we need to humanise him. People aren’t going to like a little boy who’s so invulnerable.” If so, Lieb really ought to have taken that advisor and given him, (or her), one of these American ‘wedgie’ things he mentions. I’ve no idea what it is, but it doesn’t sound pleasant, and seems to bring with it the appropriate tone of dismissal.
Still, even without that, this is a boat pushed out somewhat too far. The funniest scenes by half in the campaign for the class presidency are those in which some of his classmates, brilliantly described, join up with Oliver’s doting mother as his campaign team. The scenes where Oliver’s empire get involved aren’t half as witty. On the other hand, the funniest scene of all – to my mind – is when Oliver’s empire’s heavy encounters one of his classmates in order to put the pressure on but is completely stymied by her complete innocence. Well, maybe a bit of knowing there as well. However, that scene could equally well have been written with the intended victim not being a twelve-year-old girl. In other words, the two threads – the secret billionaire, the intelligent kid at school who hides his intelligence and is consequently underestimated – fail to combine well. Lieb can’t quite seem to integrate them sufficiently. They feel strained in their amalgamation. In giving himself so much latitude, Lieb hasn’t given himself some wondrous freedom of movement, but instead foundered in so vast a terrain. Too much wealth of opportunity. Too much opportunity is like too much money. Give yourself a hundred million pounds to play with, you can probably allocate it to any number of worthwhile expenditures. Give yourself a trillion, and you’ll end up just mucking about.
When all’s said and done, though, this is a riot of a book, littered with amusing images both in its accompanying pictures, and in its writing. It’s just unfortunate it’s not two books.