The premise of Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy--that Tiny Tim Cratchit is all grown up and hobbling around 1860s London--could be a deterrent to opening the book, conjuring, as it does, the ghost of classics derivations past. Books like The Wind Done Gone and Ahab's Wife, which court fame by putting a modern shine on dusty works, make one wonder whether there are any new ideas out there at all.
But, hey, I'm a sucker for a good Christmas story. And lucky that, because Mr. Timothy turns out to be a genuinely engrossing and somewhat subversive tale. Everyone, no doubt, remembers Tim, the thimble of a boy with the "plaintive little voice" who rode upon his father's shoulders in A Christmas Carol. His father, the clerk Bob Cratchit, loved Tim as only a broken, golden-hearted man could, boasting of his son's similarly generous spirit. In church one Sunday, according to his father, Tim wished that people take a good, long look at him "because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."
According to Mr. Timothy, this recounting was an outright lie. The Timothy Cratchit we meet--now a Medium Tim somewhere in his 20s--is a bitter and haunted man, living in a bordello where he teaches reading to the house madam, and fishing at night for dead bodies to strip for coins and other treasure. He writes letters to his dead father, who sometimes appears out of the fog, to debunk the myth of his early, cheerful demeanor, including the words he supposedly uttered that day at church. "Those tales of yours came complete with implicit morals, didn't they?" Tim pens. "Little barbs of reproach for the things I hadn't thought to say, the things you had been forced to say for me."
Bayard's handy premise accomplishes more than the unveiling of long-held resentments, however, as the novel shows Timothy fighting for his identity as a man. Considering the deprivations of his beginnings, he has a lot of catching up to do. Other, more brutish, men mock his lack of sexual prowess. Even Tim thinks himself curiously chaste for someone living in a house full of ladies of the night. More damaging to his fledgling independence, though, are the occasional schleps to Scrooge's house for money. One of the most anticipated scenes in the book involves a visit to Tim's old "uncle," who is infirm and alone, though still merry, living in a mansion where one room is perpetually decorated for Christmas. The shriveled financier lies there, his nightshirt having "fallen open to reveal a shrunken, hairless, chalky chest and thin, slack cords of a neck, wobbling under the exertion of speech." Timothy feels used by Scrooge, who once saved his life by monetary generosity and in return expected to be forever a cherished uncle. He describes himself as the plucky little protagonist in Scrooge's story, "and there was no breaking free."
In the end, it takes two wayward children--a street-savvy homeless boy and a girl whose life is in danger--to bring out Tim's innate heroism. Just days before Christmas, a fiendish killer is on the loose, leaving a gruesome wake of dead girls mysteriously branded with the letter "G." As the plot unfolds, Tim engages in a series of over-the-top (and somewhat overwritten) adventures that might have been dreamed up by Tiny Tim the boy. He brutalizes men twice his size and manages, at one point, to participate in a breathless foot chase despite the ever-present pain in his knee. "I simply run through it," he explains gallantly, "as though it were a set of hurdles placed at every step along the way."
Here, Bayard gives us both his own convincing creation and a figure that hearkens compellingly back to Dickens. For behind the crusading slum-dweller, it's not difficult to picture Tim as a lonely, misunderstood child, longing for a best friend and a fair maiden to rescue; wishing to snap that crutch over his knee and tell everyone who pities him to sod off.