- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

By Arthur Phillips
Random House, $25, 272 pages

By John Wray
Farrar Straus & Giroux, $25, 272 pages

Two of the best American writers to have emerged during the new century’s maiden decade have recently published substantial and attention-getting new novels. Both represent logical extensions of and interesting departures from their authors’ previous books, and each, despite demonstrable flaws, marks a genuine step forward.

Arthur Phillips is probably tired of being identified as an undefeated “Jeopardy” champion who also writes novels — rather than a cerebral game-show whiz whose first three novels have sent critics scurrying to their thesauruses for appropriate words of praise.

Mr. Phillips first dazzled us in 2001 with “Prague,” in which a gaggle of overachieving young expatriates explore the physical and cultural landscapes of post-Communist Budapest, brandishing intellectual gamesmanship as they dream Arcadian visions incarnated in the (faraway) title city. After “Prague,” there came an elegantly dippy comic murder mystery (“The Egyptologist,” 2004), in which an archaeologist’s exploration into the historical past sparks a Nabokovian immersion in the ordeal of self-knowledge; then a tricky Victorian ghost story (“Angelica, 2007), presented by four ineffably unreliable narrators, in a brilliantly orchestrated homage to Henry James’ classic novella “The Turn of the Screw.”

Can Mr. Phillips do anything? Well, yes and no. His fourth novel, “The Song is You,” revisits the arena of self-absorption, as Julian Donohue, a fortysomething director of TV commercials and a passionate pop and jazz music aficionado, relates the story of his obsessive admiration for a beautiful singer-songwriter barely half his age.

It’s a tale frequently chronicled in song and story. Separated from his distraught wife after the death of their young son from a mysterious illness, Julian becomes instantly smitten with the charms of Cait O’Dwyer, whose act he catches in a Brooklyn nightspot and whose career (and physical person) he follows very nearly to the point of becoming her stalker. He leaves notes for her on cocktail napkins, offers unsolicited career advice, even flies impulsively to Paris when his goddess-muse has a gig there.

The alert reader may catch another Nabokovian allusion — to besotted Humbert Humbert’s creepy pursuit of his beloved “nymphet” Lolita. But there’s an important difference: Julian and Cate never meet.

Mr. Phillips does provide some nifty variations in subplots involving Julian’s self-destructive wife Rachel, his chronically unemployable and unstable older brother Aidan (an autodidact who himself appears on “Jeopardy” — and, interestingly, fails miserably), the scraggly members of Cait’s touring band, and a vividly imagined dime-store satanic figure: rock star-turned-visual artist Alec Stamford (who’s perhaps intended to play antagonist Clare Quilty to Julian’s Humbert Humbert).

The problem? It’s The Woman, Watson. Cait is never made credible, and the moony paeans to her “genius” risk absurdity whenever Mr. Phillips offers sample lyrics from her original songs (e.g., “Bleak and Obliquer”). Conversely, Mr. Phillips writes beautifully about music’s power to assail and reconstitute our senses. When he observes of Julian “he could believe, with Cait in his life, that he could be free and tethered, young and old, joyful and mourning, forgiven,” we believe that this is what it’s like to be hopelessly devoted to a fleeting vision of artistic and romantic perfection. Proust would have understood perfectly.


Stranger things are happening in “Lowboy,” the third novel from Whiting Award winner (and sometime rock musician) John Wray. It follows his brilliant first novel “The Right Hand of Sleep” (2001), set in Austria (where Mr. Wray’s mother was born) in the 1930s during the rise of fascism; and its mordant successor “Canaan’s Tongue” (2005), the story (indisputably indebted to Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”) of a 19th-century outlaw gang that tempts slaves to run away, then hires out to recapture them.

In “Lowboy,” Mr. Wray depicts a single fateful day in the baffled young life of Will Heller, a 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who has left the clinic where he has been under observation and in treatment and fled into the New York subways. Will has persuaded himself that the world will end in a matter of hours, unless he can thwart the effects of global warming by “cooling” the planet — first cooling his overheated self (in a manner quite familiar, at least in fantasy, to most teenage boys).

It sounds like a smutty joke but this novel is serious and means business. Its structure and time frame appear classically Aristotelian; all else is chaos unleashed upon us.

The novel is organized around three searches. Will looks for Emily, his former schoolmate and de facto girlfriend, we gradually piece together their story: recoiling instinctively when she had reached out to touch him affectionately, Will had pushed Emily off a subway platform onto the tracks (she was not seriously injured; but he was apprehended and incarcerated).

Will is the object of a search conducted by Ali Lateef (an adopted name), a black police detective, at the request of Will’s (Austrian) mother Yda, whom Will has always called Violet (after her favorite color). And Violet/Yda also “searches” — through her memory, sifting fragments of odd or threatening experiences, any one or combination of which might have caused her son’s delusional imbalance.

The novel is derivative. One imagines a clinically deranged Holden Caulfield prowling an unfamiliar metropolis’ mean streets; or thinks of Dostoevsky’s disturbingly introverted “Notes from the Underground.” And in Ali’s relentless, albeit compassionate and empathetic pursuit of Will, there are strong echoes of Porfiry and Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment” and of Javert and Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.”

Yet Mr. Wray’s novel succeeds brilliantly as a microscopically precise portrait of an unraveling mind, whose fantastic perceptions (expressed in a kind of aslant surrealist prose poetry) carry its protagonist convincingly ever farther from “reality.” Few contemporary novels since Faulkner’s (you see, I’m doing it too) have understood dissociation in such a frighteningly persuasive manner. “Lowboy” is filled with shocks and surprises Still, it’s as unified as a novel can be (its climax and resolution are right there before your eyes, from the opening pages). And its young author, already one of our best, seems poised to explore even more distant and seductive expanses and depths.

Bruce Allen is a freelance reviewer based in Kittery, Maine.

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