An insider’s look at New York book publishing spins a fable of egos, literature, and commerce in which an editor’s obsession with a poet leads to the revelation of a crucial secret.
Galassi (Left-Handed, 2012, etc.) is a poet and translator and, for his day job, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In this fiction debut, he imagines the gifted and beautiful poet Ida Perkins, cynosure of men literary and otherwise. A critics’ darling from her first collection at 18, she soon captivates enough readers to make her that rarest of phenomena, a profitable poet. Her fortunate publisher is Sterling Wainwright of Impetus Editions, a WASP from old New England money, and his chief rival is Homer Stern of Purcell & Stern, a savvy, foulmouthed Austrian Jew who racks up more Nobels than any other house—except Farrar. The obsessive is Paul Dukach, whose early years working in a bookstore led him to a passion for and near-omniscience about Ida and a job at P&S. A first-time meeting with Ida brings him and the story to the ultimate collision of private person and published writing that has percolated through the novel, as it has through the history of literary criticism. With the Paul and Ida characters, Galassi conveys the thrill of being dazzled by literature. (The sample Ida poems suggest that he favors feeling and clarity over obscurantism.) He also has fun with the language of reviewing while delivering a casual seminar on American poetry. A sense of historical fiction permeates in references to Ida’s many triumphs and contemporary events and in thumbnail sketches of several characters. Janis Joplin sings one of Ida's poems at Woodstock. Marianne Moore tells her “We are pierced by the intricate needlework of your asperitic formulations.” An extended riff on the Frankfurt Book Fair bespeaks years of painful firsthand experience.
May be more fun for cognoscenti than for common readers, yet it offers a worthy psalm on the pre-Amazon, pre-digital days of publishing that anyone might appreciate. Galassi rates praise especially for choosing to have some knowing fun with his years in the business and sparing the world another memoir.