Secret family histories drive this hefty novel encompassing rock music, the art world, leftist politics, the long reach of the Holocaust, and more.
The second novel by Bauman (And the Word Was, 2006) turns on three figures with complex pasts. Moses Teumer, a history professor, is seeking a bone-marrow donor to treat his leukemia when he discovers he’s the half brother of Alchemy Savant, a Bono-esque rock star with messianic political ambitions; their shared mother is Salome Savant, a celebrated counterculture artist with a history of mental breakdowns. The Pynchon-esque character names provide a hint about the sensibility of the novel, which is rife with clandestine relationships and glimpses into the loopy but earnest LA demimonde of sex, music, and limousine liberals. Under those glitzy surfaces of money and art, Bauman argues, blood connections are more truly influential: Moses must reckon with his discovery that his father is an unrepentant Nazi soldier, while Salome shares the same urge for attention and seclusion that defined her mother, Greta Garbo. At more than 600 pages, the novel is too baggy to sustain its lead characters without contrivance; the closing sections, which move into the near future to describe Alchemy’s climb to the political stage, are a speedy but wearying recycling of riffs on media culture, family drama, and American surveillance politics that were already established early on. And the story’s tragic climax is less powerful for being revealed early. Bauman does have the virtue of writing well in multiple registers. Salome’s perspective is free-wheeling and dreamlike, Moses’ sagely, and Alchemy is seen largely via tough-talking band mate Ambitious Mindswallow, who rises from a Queens street kid to member of the world’s biggest band. He’s a key allegorical figure in Bauman’s lament for a lost American dream where once upon a time anything was possible.
A big-thinking but overstuffed postmodern epic.