- - Thursday, July 16, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MUSE

By Jonathan Galassi

Knopf, $25, 253 pages

When a writer who has spent his entire life in the publishing business sits down to write his first novel, what does he write about? Well, that was easy — publishing, of course. The next question is twofold: How and how well does he do it? The twofold answer is this: One, he does it by creating a character much like himself who spends his entire life in publishing; and, two, at least in this case, he does it very well, by imagining a main character who couldn’t be happier with the life he chose and the way it worked out. And how many people can say that?

While still in his teens, solitary soul Paul Dukach knows he’s destined to leave his upstate New York hamlet of Hattersville — “a rust-belt town that seemed to survive on pure inertia” — where the charismatic woman who owns the local bookstore turns him on to a love of books and the poetry of one Ida Perkins, whose well-deserved critical reputation is matched by her popular appeal and enhanced by her physical beauty. Add to that her Bohemian lifestyle, replete with several husbands and many former lovers.

Given his twin passions, Paul has no choice but to head downstate to what used to be referred to as, and in truth still is, the literary Mecca of America, New York City. Thanks to his near-encyclopedic knowledge of Perkins and her poetry, after college he lands an editorial job at Purcell & Stern, an independent holdout with a solid reputation run by the very much larger-than-life Homer Stern, who Paul’s bookstore-owner mentor describes as “an outrageous cad [who] will teach you more about publishing in one day than you’ll ever learn anywhere else.”

Homer’s fiercest competitor and another of the few quality independents left in publishing is one Sterling Wainwright, who happens to be Ida Perkins‘ cousin. Complicating the scenario is the fact that the boorish (by comparison) Homer, not the patrician Sterling, publishes Ida Perkins‘ very profitable books. And if that isn’t enough, both of these industry giants have been Ida’s lover, now several times removed.

As the novel progresses, if that’s the right word given that “Muse” is rather short on plot, Paul becomes close to both of these older men, and finds that he likes them equally. But then, miracle of miracles, he is introduced to Ida Perkins herself, gains her confidence, and then, at the three-quarter-mile post, the story takes off like American Pharoah.

I won’t spoil the ending, but, to me, the story is less impressive than the book’s main strongest point — Mr. Galassi’s obvious knowledge of the publishing industry, especially the industry as it was. For example he writes, of Paul’s early days at P & S, “Manuscripts from literary agents would show up in neat gray or powder-blue boxes on his pockmarked old school desk or in battered manila envelopes if they were from writers without representation, and he’d read through them with the requisite show-me detachment.

“In 90 percent of cases, you could tell within a page or two if the writer could write. Ninety percent of the time, box or no box, he or she could not [but] When, miraculously, the work was actually fine, Paul would rush into Homer’s office half crazed with excitement shouting, ‘We have to do this!’ “

Let us pray, digital age or no digital age, that such scenes still play out in the canyons — or clouds — of publishing.

Publishing types will undoubtedly recognize Roger Straus, Mr. Galassi’s former boss at Farrar, Straus & Giroux as Homer and James Laughlin of New Directions fame as Sterling, as well as the wealth of satirical bits. But that offers little for the non-insider (indeed, the idea may actually annoy some readers) who will get far more pleasure out of observations such as one concerning the inheritability of positive family traits: “So much for genetics. Genius, it seemed, struck like lightning and moved on, leaving befuddlement and disarray in its wake.”

Another strength is that the author — today the CEO of the highly-respected independent publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux — truly knows whereof and what-of he writes. Thus, it is all the more impressive, especially considering the author’s day job, to read the novel’s opening sentences: “This is a love story. It’s about the good old days when men were men and women were women and books were books, with glued or even sewn bindings, cloth or paper covers, beautiful or not-so-beautiful jackets and a musty, dusty, wonderful smell; when books furnished many a room and their contents, the magic words, their poetry and prose, were liquor, perfume, sex, and glory to their devotees.” O tempore, O mores.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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