Rubin’s debut novel tells an imaginative story of American emptiness.
Encouraged by his mother, Giovanni Bernini has nursed his gift of imitation since childhood, practicing on friends and teachers, always performing flawless facsimiles of those around him. Finally pushed into the spotlight by a talent agent named Max, Giovanni becomes, pardon the cliché, the toast of the town, and one imagines an old-timey montage from a 1940s movie: newspaper headlines twirling, champagne corks popping, and hammy impresarios introducing the great impressionist upon stage after stage. This old-fashioned, show-biz quality is one of the more appealing aspects of Rubin’s novel—there’s even a love interest named Lucy Starlight (a singer, of course) and a villainous theater owner named Bernard Apache. But Giovanni is the center, and he’s a complicated figure: a man who, in his attempt to perfectly mimic the characteristics of others, ultimately realizes he has no characteristics of his own. Rubin excels at detailing the specifics of impersonation, as when Giovanni breaks down what different gestures mean—“nodding while breathing out your nose (to express amused agreement), raising your eyebrows while suppressing a smile (mild scandal), or shaking your head while breathing in through the mouth (sympathy)”—or when he discusses “the thread,” the aspect of personality that everybody has and on which a great impressionist pulls to begin unraveling the subject (“the thread” is a masterful governing metaphor). As Giovanni drifts from New York into Hollywood, then into politics, then into therapy, the novel starts to feel diffuse, as though Rubin wants to do too much. It doesn't help that, as an occasional screenwriter, Rubin tends to sketch his scenes sparsely—mostly dialogue and gesture—as though awaiting a director to fill in the rest.
A strong debut that remains steadily written, even as it drifts away from its best material.