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Trenchant wit and a smattering of hip tenderness distinguish Marden's first novel--a tightly choreographed adventure of identity lost and regained. Knicked on the shoulder by the foot of a soon-to-be suicide who's taken a 40-story dive, a man sits up on a sidewalk, spattered with the dead man's blood, with no memory, no name. As he looks around, a resident of a nearby men's shelter casts him as Payofski, a legendary personality among the denizens of the street. After several days of uneasily trying on the dirt-smudged vagaries of shelter life, Payofski is claimed, renamed Warren Paley and reintroduced to his impossibly young but lovely wife, Julie, and to his life as a driven but universally scorned painter. He's suffering, a doctor explains, from a brain lesion that periodically causes him to forget his entire past. Over the course of several weeks, Paley falls in love with Julie, begins an ambitious new canvas and exhibits some requisite mad-artist eccentricities. He's also reminded of his hated father-in-law, Allston Weir, the art critic and opinion-making founder of Artifact, journal of the art world, who has continually rejected Paley's work and doomed him to critical and financial failure. Paley's starving-artist idyll is ended by a long-haired man waving a gun, who identifies himself as Paley's brother, Hector. Before putting a bullet in Warren Paley's shoulder, Hector reveals: Warren's not Paley; the real Paley was the suicide whose plunge precipitated this bout of memory loss. The no-longer Paley is actually the loathsome Weir, subjected to a vengeful trick. Barely wounded, Weir is sent home to his estate in the Vermont mountains, where he stews, obsessed with Warren Paley and his beloved Julie, actually his daughter. Surrounded by a greedy wife, a predatory personal physician (who doubles--weirdly detached--as the book's narrator) and a young son whose speech has the cadence of outer-space poetry, Weir sinks into a black depression that he circumvents only by chance. These improbable goings-on have a kind of fairy-tale elasticity, and the happy end is of less interest than the strange magic--the shapes of Weir's various lives, the calm musical language spoken by the petty and unpleasant doctor--that illuminates the way. In all: small, engrossing, often resonant.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1986
Publisher: Indiana Univ. Press