BLUEBEARD

A NOVEL

Likable, jaunty, lesser Vonnegut: the chatty autobiography of minor Abstract Expressionist painter Rabo Karabekian (a minor player in Breakfast of Champions)—interspersed with Rabo's present-day doings in his posh, art-treasure-filled manse in East Hampton, Long Island. Now 70-ish, a loner since the death of his super-rich, beloved second wife, Rabo hasn't painted for years. His potato-barn studio is locked, with his final, secret masterwork contained therein (á la Bluebeard); his house bursts with the Pollocks and Rothkos and such he acquired years ago for little or nothing; his own so-so oeuvre is nonexistent, having self-destructed—"thanks to unforeseen chemical reactions between the sizing of my canvases and the acrylic wall-paint and colored tapes I had applied to them." So Rabo is writing his memoirs, despite frequent interruptions from his new, self-invited house. guest: nosy, pushy, voluptuous Circe Berman, 43, widow of a Baltimore brain-surgeon, and author (under the "Polly Madison" pseudonym) of super-popular YA novels. And there are also occasional visits from neighbor-chum Paul Slazinger, a penniless, artistic novelist whose fragile psyche is hard-hit by the presence of crafty, nonartistic best-selling "Polly Madison." The memoirs themselves also feature this hoary art/commerce dichotomy. As an artistically gifted boy in 1920's California, child of Armenian immigrants (traumatized by the Turkish atrocities), Rabo writes fan letters to famous, super-realistic NYC illustrator Dan Gregory (nÉ Gregorian)—and wins, long-distance, the heart of Gregory's abused mistress Marilee Kemp. This leads to an apprenticeship with creepy Gregory (a graphic "taxidermist"), a brief affair with Marilee ("three hours of ideal lovemaking"), and a lifelong preoccupation with technique vs. "soul" in painting. Later on there's WW II service as a camouflage specialist (Rabo loses an eye), an unnerving reunion with war. scarred Marilee in Italy, and bohemian days with the young Abstract Expressionists—focusing on a fictional, self-destroying genius named Terry Kitchen. The book's final revelation—the nature of the secret painting locked up in the potato-barn—finds Vonnegut returning, without much force, to his favorite antiwar themes. Elsewhere, too, the familiar messages—pacifist, humanist, feminist—are worked in rather clumsily. But the curmudgeonly interplay with unstoppable snoop Circe/Polly has a bright comic edge reminiscent, mildly, of Berger and Bellow; the sprightly memoirs have just a light, airy shading of fable and exaggeration. So, though less arresting or Vivid or disturbing than prime Vonnegut (and a disappointment for readers expecting real development of the Abstract Expressionist angle), this is an easy-to-take mixture of comic diversion, low-key satire, and unabashed preaching.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1987

ISBN: 038533351X

Page Count: 340

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1987

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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