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Nicholas Kraven, the middle-aged British protagonist of Isler's savagely funny second novel (after The Prince of West End Avenue, 1994), would seem to have it made. He has an undemanding job as a lecturer in English literature at Mosholu College in the Bronx, classrooms of stolid students to hector, patronize (and, when a particularly alluring young woman catches his eye, seduce), and a longstanding adulterous liaison with a highly inventive neighbor. There are, of course, the occasional indignities: He must turn out scholarly articles and even appear to take seriously the seemingly crackbrained discovery of an elderly student (that Merlin was not only a historical figure but a Jew). Still, life isn't bad. And then, in an instant, it turns hilariously awful. His lover's husband deserts her. He adapts his student's idea about Merlin, taking credit for it himself, and at first receives extraordinary praise, then is reviled as a plagiarist. Worst, in a deft moment that sends the novel soaring in an audacious new direction, Kraven is revealed to be an impostor. Raised in England in an extended family of German Jewish ‚migr‚s, Kraven could in fact never afford to attend a university. When the loathsome cousin he had helped through school died, just before embarking for America, Kraven had usurped his job and his name. Now, he flees home, returning to London only to discover that his enemies and his past are not so easily eluded. Islet has a wonderful appetite for satire: his portraits of prissy academics, boorish students, and smarmy administrators are unsparing, convincing, and very funny. But his talent can equally meet the demands of sensitively portraying Kraven's suffering as, back home, he begins painfully to sift through the ruins of his life, the identity he artfully constructed and the older identity he fled. This sly comedy becomes, in the end, a subtle, profoundly moving meditation on identity and responsibility: an ambitious, stirring work by a very promising young writer.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1996
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Bridge Works