Book: Falling Up the Stairs by James Lileks

Entertaining comic novel set in mid-1980s Minneapolis

July 3, 2011

James Lileks

Falling Up the Stairs

E. P. Dutton, 1988

ISBN: 0-525-24655-X

310 pages

Out of print; as of this writing used copies seem readily available for a few dollars

James Lileks is a Minneapolitan humorist and commentator. I’ve been a fan of his for some years. He has said recently on his blog that he is working on a new series of novels. He even posted a couple of pages of a draft. I plan to buy the novels when they’re available and I expect to enjoy them. While waiting for them to be written and published, I remembered that Mr Lileks had already written a couple of novels and so I thought I’d see how I liked his first.

The main character of Falling Up the Stairs is Jonathan Simpson, a journalist in his late 20s (as Mr Lileks would have been when he was writing it).

As the book begins, he’s a reporter at the Lacs Standard newspaper that’s published in the town of Valhalla in northern Minnesota. (Approximately real-life Aitkin.) And he’s late leaving the house for work. But he’s going to be later still because his Aunt Marvel’s aged butler Trygve has arrived from Minneapolis by taxi. He brings the news that Aunt Marvel has died (from falling up the stairs) and has left her 20-room house to Jonathan, who had lived there for a short time as a boy. Trygve wants Jonathan to come there quickly because dreadful Cousin Oscar is living at the house now and throwing wild parties. Jonathan promises to visit soon, but a series of events at work suggests that his employment at the Lacs Standard may be abruptly terminated, so he heads for Minneapolis ahead of schedule. Shortly after he arrives, Aunt Marvel’s housekeeper Gruenwald, called Grue, is poisoned by a group of anti-processed-food terrorists that call themselves the Alimentary Instruction League. And it seems that his former boss’s daughter may have a connection there.

That summary takes us up through about page 35. If you get the impression that the plot is a trifle intricate, that’s right. There’s another slightly odd thing about the book: Mr Lileks occasionally uses metaphors that are more jarring than funny or illuminating. For example:

    We were taking her car. It was a foreign number imported from the Eastern

    bloc, small enough so that if parking was a problem you could just attach it to

    your charm bracelet and wear it. (p. 214)


    The walls were painted the color of skin in a Victor Mature movie, and the

    ticket counter, which had probably been something writhing with filigrees

    of brass, had been replaced with a tan Formica slab that looked like an

    altar for a sect of accountants. (p. 279)

But there are only a few of those. Mr Lileks’ writing is not quite as deft here as his current writing is. But it’s hardly surprising that two decades and more of experience should make a difference. Regardless of any of that, I liked mid-1980s Minneapolis in real life and and inhabiting a version imagined by James Lileks for a few hours in 2011 was a pleasure.