Busy Foot Bingtoot and the Maladies, by Tom Ruffles

Busy Bingfoot cvr

The first thing to make clear is that I am not the author.  If I were I would hardly be reviewing it (this isn’t Amazon, and anyway I have standards).  There are others in the world who share my name, probably related distantly to me, however the author of Busy Foot Bingtoot is not one of my kinsmen.  That is because Tom Ruffles isn’t actually his name but is a nom de plume as well as the name assigned to the main character.  In the book the author adopts it after learning that it is the name of a doctor in the A&E department where Tom the character takes his wife after she burns her hand.  At one point the author muses that it was a little embarrassing to have chosen unlikely names for his characters, such as Busy Foot Bingtoot; ‘Tom’s last name Ruffles was also unlikely, and not at all credible’.  It turns out that it is extremely credible.

I came across the book by accident when I noticed a Facebook page for ‘Tom Ruffles, author’ and wondered who that might be.  The writer replied to my enquiry and kindly sent me a PDF.  So what about these other Tom Ruffleses – author and character – who may (or may not) be identical?  Tom is a massage therapist-turned-night guard who is married and living in Seattle.  His wife is Busy Foot Bingtoot (Bingtoot being her first husband’s surname, at least as conferred by the author).  She is of Native American extraction, an alcoholic who suffers from ADHD and brittle bones, and is presumably on the autistic spectrum judging by her behaviour.  A shopaholic, she compulsively buys and hoards, running up enormous debts and making everyday living in the house a challenge.  She also has ‘restless leg syndrome’, hence the ‘Busy Foot’.

Tom and Busy occupy separate rooms, with Tom outside in the converted garage ostensibly to be in a quiet environment to sleep during the day.  Physical intimacy between them has become a distant memory.  Busy has a son, Idaho, who has his own health problems that make him the centre of her world, and her concentration on him reinforces his dependency.  On top of all that she cares for her father, who has progressive dementia.  Squeezed out by these concerns, well-meaning Tom struggles to cope with her unpredictability while feeling that he is more a lodger in his own home than part of an equal relationship.  To add to his woes he writes a short story and finds himself embroiled in a harassment case after unwisely showing it to a co-worker.

The implication of the narrative is that it is thinly-disguised fact, a supposition that is bolstered by the inclusion of real people and the declared adoption of the author’s pseudonym.  However much truth there is in it, the result is a study in being taken for granted; Tom tells himself that Busy needs him but what becomes manifest is just how superfluous she considers him.  Despite the extremely frustrating circumstances she presents him with he doesn’t display anger, because he recognises that impulsiveness and selfishness are an expression of Busy’s mental condition, but he doesn’t get firm with her either, admitting that saying no was never his strong suit.  He is rarely assertive even when she is being infuriatingly vague about making decisions that involve him, or simply goes ahead with her plans without any consultation if doing so works to her advantage.

Thus she is more than happy to take regular expensive trips to medical conferences with Idaho, but at one point Tom asks her about going on a short break with him and she hedges around but cannot bring herself to give a firm ‘no’ even when it is clear she won’t.  His response is to say mildly ‘You seem ambivalent about the state of our marriage’ when you want an assertive ‘for God sake stop prevaricating and come out with what you mean for once!’  There’s nothing ‘seeming’ about her attitude but Tom won’t challenge her.  Her attitude throughout speaks volumes about how she sees her desires as being more important than his.  What makes it worse is how his wish to avoid conflict becomes internalised and he accepts Busy’s decisions even when unreasonable, such as her negative reaction when he tells her he would like to move back into the main house.  The firmest thing he does is refuse to move out of the house entirely when Busy wants to move her father into his room because her son is now occupying the main bedroom.

Tom’s passivity with his wife is all the more surprising as he has depths that are only hinted at.  He writes (and uses his writing as therapy to make sense of his situation and cope with it).  He had lived in London on a houseboat on the Thames for three years with his first wife Sara; he has interesting friends in England and some good connections locally.  How is it he is working as a security guard?  His stated ambition extends no further than one distant day, post-Busy, living in a trailer on Sara’s 40 acres.  There is more than one life going to waste in Busy Foot Bingtoot.  As his tolerance of Busy and the misjudgement over the stalking business suggest, he possesses a degree of naivety, a trait Sara notes.  Yet even he eventually acknowledges a slow winding down of his marriage to Busy, as she has already left him in spirit if not in body.

The turning point comes when Tom takes a solo trip to visit Sara in California, after which he becomes calmer and more optimistic about the future.  Even so, though he knows that things must change, he is in a fog about what to do for the best.  It’s a common theme in relationships, but knowing is a lot easier than fixing.  Eventually the situation resolves itself before he is forced to take action.  Is the resolution though what happened in real life?  Tom discusses the ending of the book he is writing (presumably the book we are reading) with his brothers, who both argue for a reconciliation with Busy.  That he is prepared to discuss how the ‘story’ should end indicates that the author is not wedded to a rigid retelling of what happened but is prepared to fictionalise it.  We are led to believe that this is a lightly disguised version of the truth, but there is no way to know how much elaboration there has been.  There is a slipperiness here that cannot be pinned down, and that ambiguity makes it a fascinating read.

I am conscious that I may, in criticising the character Tom, be criticising the author, depending on how closely the character maps onto the author’s life in this roman à clef, but two responses spring to mind: if you offer a character to the world, you have to expect him or her to be criticised; and in this particular case it is evident that the author is not happy with the life that Tom is leading, so there is no harm in adding my bit.  Perhaps I feel more strongly than I normally would with a novel because of our nominative link, and I like to think that Tom (however defined) will have a good future.  As for me, I’ve learned that you shouldn’t be too precious about your name.

 

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