Tom Houghton is a well-written story about a complex and tortured character. It juxtaposes the past with the present to give us some understanding of why the adult Tom is the way he is. The result is an intriguing psychological profile.
Tom Houghton is a strange little boy, and it’s Tom as a boy that carries this book. The structure is one chapter in the past with Tom as a bullied twelve year old, followed by one chapter with Tom as he is now, a gay actor with massive insecurities, then we have another chapter with the boy and so on. The ‘Tom the boy’ thread tells the story of Tom’s determination to show those who bully him that he’s worth far more than they could ever imagine. After several chapters of just getting to know Tom and his obsession with Hollywood, Tom’s teacher decides that the class will have a Hollywood dress up day and all the children will wear costumes. For the rest of that thread, the reader is wondering what it actually is that his neighbour is creating for him and, as we fear, will he walk into his classroom wearing a dress? Without this question, the book would have no real plot at all, and even then, this is fairly subtle, but it’s there, and it holds together what would otherwise be simply a character study. The end of it wasn’t what I expected either.
Writers are taught that the best characters are flawed. They should also make poor choices sometimes because this creates drama and makes them like real people. Alexander has certainly managed that here, but it’s also a good idea not to make characters unlikeable, particularly in a book that is so totally character driven, and in this area Alexander walks a fine line. Young Tom has our compassion; we see a boy in a world of his own, misunderstood and lonely, but Tom the adult is rather too often for my taste a bit of a pig. The extent of his stupidity when he’s blind drunk is no doubt very realistic, but I certainly don’t like him for it, and when you’re spending all those hours with a character, if you don’t like them it taints your reading experience. Liking is a purely personal area though; my feelings do not take away the fact that Mr Alexander is an excellent writer. It does, however, contribute to the reasons why I haven’t awarded this fine book five stars.
Had the adult Tom thread had more of a plot—as in, an aim thwarted then struggled to achieve—I could have forgiven him his stupidity and immaturity, but he even lacked a desire to learn from his mistakes, and the adult thread overall lacked direction. The character did finally develop the desire to become a more reasonable person, but by then the tale had wandered and had it not been for young Tom I could easily have put it down.
Readers should be aware that there is some homosexual sex in the book, not much and not terribly explicit, enough to intrigue those who are interested and turn off any with homophobic tendencies.