An unconventional midlife crisis unsparingly reveals its secretive protagonist’s outwardly successful life and persistent inner demons: the initially leisurely, eventually absorbing novel—the first in 14 years—from the veteran author of Southern Light (1986), etc.
The story’s opening pages summarize American Ben[edict] Oakshaw’s unremarkable adolescence, Marine combat experience in Viet Nam and later assigned duty in London (where a passing youthful interest in the theater blossoms into a genuine vocation), before he forsakes acting, returning home for a business career, creates his own advertising agency and marries the beautiful and devoted Priscilla. Their chance attendance at an American production of a play written by and starring Jill Davenport (Ben’s fellow drama student, and lover, in London) sparks a renewed friendship—and a “trance”-like summer at the Oakshaws’ Cape Hatteras beach house, where they’re joined by Jill and her “epicene” companion, journalist Tony Griswold, an affable cipher who seems to be in the book merely to prove Jill isn’t the kind of woman who’d be without male company. Neither is she the nonthreatening friend warmhearted “Priss” takes her for nor the abandoned siren the conflicted Ben half-hopes for. Still, their old acquaintance is rekindled, with a (literal) passion—the consequences of which emerge at the startling climax, when Jill’s new play (which Ben had agreed to “back,” script unseen) proves a “betrayal” that changes his life radically. Salamanca reveals the complex permutations of Ben’s relationships and his (defining) memories in a series of extended scenes (often dominated by brilliantly managed conversations) in which he hesitantly, then willfully tests the boundaries of his deepest commitments and worst impulses—and vividly dramatizes every stage of his unsuspected downward path to wisdom, and regret.
Arguably a bit talkier than strictly necessary, but a tale that builds extra layers of complexity and power with every finely tuned paragraph.