"A sure-handed narrative led by a hapless but resilient adventurer."– Kirkus Reviews
High jinks ensue in this picaresque novel when an author sets out ’round the world to shepherd his short story through several translations.
Novelist Story introduces readers to middle-aged Charles Abel Baker, who, like Story, is a writer and former professor of Russian history. Bored and stuck in his life, Charles desperately needs a project, an adventure. He decides to take a short story and have it translated through 10 different languages, then back into English to see whether at the end, à la a game of Telephone, it is even remotely like the original. He tries to interest high-powered publisher Derek Wainscot in the project and is rebuffed. But then Wainscot steals the idea himself, and that means deploying shady operatives to follow Charles and frustrate his plans whenever possible. But an old friend of Charles’, Jonathan Belknap, a retired CIA agent, smells a rat and deploys his own crew against Wainscot’s. The result is a merry, yearlong chase around the globe. Early on, Charles meets Svetlana Novgorodtseva, and love blossoms, fades, blossoms again. An unlikely adventurer, Charles gets out of one impossibly tight spot after another, sometimes by his own devices, sometimes thanks to Belknap’s long arm. There is more, much more, and it moves fast. Story is impressively inventive, and though this yarn is a zany one sure to induce a few grins, it’s not quite a gut-busting affair, especially when, for instance, a drug lord makes a point by executing a young kid in front of Charles. That hardly rates a guffaw. Still, the amusing spy-vs.-spy business involves old hands with handles like “Pig” and “Smilin’ Jack,” and Story is adept at the quick surprise and the odd plot twist. Short and punchy chapters feature background rumination about the beauty of words and the mysteries of translations.
A sure-handed narrative led by a hapless but resilient adventurer.
In Story’s (Problems of Translation, 2015) second novel, several outsiders try to outrun their pasts.
In 1971, Clayton Poole is a 34-year-old journalist for the Rolling Hills Reporter newspaper in Montana. In the paper’s “morgue” of articles from other news outlets, he’s startled by a recent piece about a woman in Washington state who confesses to killing her estranged husband with a gun that a “mysterious stranger” gave to her. This discovery leads him to call an emergency meeting with his editor, but the exact reason for his excitement isn’t immediately revealed. In 1965, Rusty Thomas meets a waitress named Maddie in a diner at the limits of Southeast City, Washington. He presents her with a pair of nylons that he won in a radio contest. Their ensuing relationship is troubled by the specter of Maddy’s past. In 1952, Travis Mackey is a 15-year-old youth who lives with his father, the caretaker of a shutdown gypsum mine in the Coast Range in California. Ever since his mother’s untimely death, his dad has taken to beating him regularly. One day, on a deserted country road, he looks up and sees a condor, and he imagines it swooping down to sink its talons into the old man. Not long afterward, a stranger appears at the mine toting a gun. The narrative spans almost seven decades, beginning in 1952 and concluding in 2018, but author Story proves to be a master of the slow reveal, gradually pulling away the veil that shrouds a secret that’s central to the plot. He does so by sharing details of his characters only when readers truly need to know them, and not before. Regarding Rusty, Story writes laconically, “Though he lived close to the heart of the town, near the college, he was customarily drawn to peripheries.” Such revelations lead to further questions; for instance, is Rusty drawn to peripheries because he has something to hide? The novel’s epilogue is somewhat long-winded, unnecessarily tying up every loose end. Otherwise, though, this is a smartly conceived, beguiling tale that few readers will forget.
Refreshingly original writing with a delightfully orchestrated twist.