A world-class photographer has close calls in Fidel’s Havana and Saddam’s Baghdad in the latest from novelist/critic Lentricchia (Crimes of Art and Terror, 2003, etc.).
Days before the 1962 Missile Crisis, while she was a college senior, Ruth Cohen went to Cuba and took seemingly artless photographs of ordinary Cubans that rocketed her to overnight fame, causing rumors to swirl that she had slept with both Fidel and JFK (not true, though Adlai did make a pass at her at Bobby and Ethel’s place). But something terrible happened in Havana. Ruth was the innocent dupe of two Cuban double agents working for Uncle Sam; the plot to kill Castro went awry, and a small girl died in agony before Ruth’s eyes. Ruth feels responsible for the girl’s death; she seeks anonymity and eventually gives up her career. In 1990, in Utica, N.Y., she meets Thomas Lucchesi, a dismally unsuccessful Italian-American experimental novelist; he’s 59, she’s 46. They marry the next year and retreat to the remote Adirondacks, to live on land given to Ruth by a Rockefeller. At this point, the author fastforwards to 2002, as the build-up to the war in Iraq begins. New Yorker magazine plucks Ruth from obscurity to photograph Saddam; Thomas accompanies her. The shoot is a great success, but then Thomas is grabbed by Saddam’s goons; it’s all a farcical misunderstanding, but he disappears for good. On the surface, this love story makes little sense: Why would Ruth be drawn to the wimpy, hypochondriac Thomas when she’s attracted to men of power (she enjoys Saddam, to her horror)? Buried beneath it, there’s a far more interesting story about an artist looking for redemption, though it’s mystifying that we learn nothing about Ruth’s background, but far too much about Thomas’s (and Lentricchia’s) Utica.
An extravagantly far-fetched novel that ogles celebrity even as it professes artistic detachment.