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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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Ayn Rand’s benevolent universe premise posits that the universe isn’t against us, that other people are a source of pleasure, and that life is worth living. It’s a fundamental view of life, one that precedes and predates one’s more consciously held philosophical beliefs. Its antipode, the malevolent universe premise, rests on the exact opposite conclusions. Psychologically, these two perspectives evince themselves as optimism and pessimism. The benevolent universe premise isn’t Pollyanna-ish, though. It makes general characterizations of the the way things are; there is nothing in it to preclude evil in the particulars of everyday life.

Having the benevolent universe premise as I do, I’m not a big fan of most fiction. Much of today’s movie and literary scene operates on the opposite sense of life, leaving me bored at best and incensed at worst. Either way, most books and movies just don’t resonate with the fibers of my being. When one does, though, I cherish it with all my might. With that in mind, allow me to share my recommendation of Nevil Shute’s novel Trustee from the Toolroom.

The book follows the adventure of a lifetime for an insignificant Englishman named Keith Stewart. He’s a freelance writer for a weekly magazine about building working miniature models and he has never been out of England. The story begins by showing the reader the interesting yet boring life that he leads. It describes his nice, little workshop, the small house that’s utterly forgettable, and his pleasant, unassuming wife who works in a small retail store near their house.

Their little world is upended when Keith’s sister and brother-in-law perish in a shipwreck near Tahiti on their around-the-world trip to the United States in their sailboat. They had left their daughter Janice in the Stewarts’ care until they reached Seattle whence they would send for her. Keith finds out that all of her parent’s worldly possessions had been liquidated to purchase diamonds that could be resold once in America. A search of their accounts and possessions indicated that these diamonds had gone down with the ship. The parents’ will also named Keith as Janice’s guardian and the estate’s trustee.

Keith grew increasingly troubled at the thought of Janice growing up without the inheritance rightfully due her and decided to venture out to try and recover it. His $3,000 per year salary is woefully insufficient to cover the expense of the trip so he is forced to divine alternate means of getting around the world. He quickly discovers that the magazine is very popular in engineering circles and that his articles are the most popular due to their simple prose and competent direction. An English airline owner offers to give Keith a ride to Honolulu via airplane since there is room aboard the freight shipment while another avid reader uses his connections to get him out of a jam in Tahiti.

What I most liked about this book was how the events of the story unfold. Every time Keith faced a new obstacle to get to the next destination, someone intervened on his behalf or offers assistance just when it’s needed most. It’s exactly what you would expect to happen, only it’s very rare in literature and the movies for such generosity and kindness to be portrayed. In a sense, then, it’s refreshingly unexpected and the suspense builds up even though it probably shouldn’t.

The characters are also a highlight. In the beginning, Keith Stewart looked to be a quiet, tedious little man. As the story wore on, though, additional facets of his character were shown: astute engineering mind, incredible eye for detail, courteous honesty, and unwavering bonhomie. His wife displayed an unforeseen adaptability that belied her mundane lifestyle. The simpleminded sailboat captain that took Keith from Honolulu to Tahiti went from an oafish moron into a efficacious sailor. Each character, supporting or not, is well developed by Shute and this reader became very interested in their lives.

It was a very rejuvenating experience. All too often I get caught up in the impersonal, often brusque way of modern life where people cut you off on the road and cheat to get ahead. These things happen, but they’re inconsequential in a wider context. By and large, people are good, life is excellent, and the world rewards the good. After reading the book, I felt a renewed sense of appreciation for my fellow man and a more congenial disposition. In short, it was a reaffirmation of the benevolent universe premise. If your sense of life has taken a beating lately and you want it back, Trustee from the Toolroom is a well-written, inspiring palliative.