Wilt (Tom Sharpe)

articleCompellingly hilarious from start to finish. Tom Sharpe was a great British humourist and Wilt is possibly his best loved book. Sharpe drew on his experiences as a polytechnic lecturer in conceiving the character of hapless and unhappily married Henry Wilt, who spends his days teaching Lord of the Flies to disinterested apprentice butchers and his nights fantasizing about killing his less than sympathetic wife, Eva.

However, when Eva goes missing after a disastrous party in which Henry finds himself tied to an inflatable sex doll, things take a decided turn for the anarchic. Sharpe’s characters are a delightful melange of the awful and absurd, amounting a to a caustic observation of the state of British society at the time (1976). If there’s a theme to Wilt it is that of being trapped. Henry Wilt is trapped in a job teaching literature to unappreciative manual workers and a marriage to a flighty, egocentric force of nature in the shape of his wife Eva. When Eva drags him to a party thrown by a pair of maladjusted sex-mad Americans, Henry finds himself first trapped in a blow-up doll and then, when he disposes of the doll and his wife doesn’t come home, he finds himself trapped in a police cell being interrogated about her murder.

Eva, meanwhile, finds herself in a boat trapped on a sandbank with the Americans and slowly coming to realize that their interpretation of events at the party is not what it appears. The genius of Wilt is the way that all these elements give Henry a detailed and credible personality. We understand his frustrations and empathize with his responses. When he spends Inspector Flint off on a wild goose chase in order to get some sleep, it flows logically from the narrative that has gone before. Eva’s outlook is less clear, but because she spends most of her time with the Pringsheims we feel a degree of sympathy for her plight. The Pringsheims, it goes without saying, are monsters – sex-mad, manipulative and self-centred. It’s not clear whether this is Sharpe’s view of Americans in general, but it would explain why all the adaptations of his work have been British.

The first time I read this I was struck by how much cruder and more sexual it was than the film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it was striking at the time. Reading it now it’s actually surprisingly tame. Apart from a few choice words from the Pringsheims, most of the sexuality of the book is, suprisingly, not very explicit. You still couldn’t have filmed it without an X rating, but on the page it’s hardly Fifty Shades of Plastic Sex Toy. But then, it doesn’t need to be, because the point is not the sex itself, but how the highly sexualized American world impacts on a tightly-buttoned Englishman who would be more happy in a repressed society. This first effort in the Wilt series is probably Tom Sharpe’s best work.




  1. Mⓨ ⓕⓐⓥⓞⓡⓘⓣⓔ


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