The third from Calgary-born, now Paris-based Huston (Slow Emergencies, 2001, etc.) concerns an alcoholic, neurotic, dying, famous Irish poet who invites a circle of friends from the New England college he teaches at to a last Thanksgiving dinner.
An audacious conceit distinguishes Huston’s tale from standard academic fare: specifically, the voice of God periodically interrupts the evening’s story to describe the future deaths of the assembled guests. Even so, only Sean, the host, has any inkling of his end, the doctor having recently told him of his inoperable cancer, but that doesn’t mean he has any intention of changing his tune. Smoking and drinking himself into oblivion throughout the evening, he can still enjoy the success of his plan to get everyone drunk as quickly as possible so that essential truths can be shared. The company includes two of Sean’s former lovers, one a secretary at the college, the other a philosophy professor (her philosophy-professor husband is also a guest); a black poet going through a bitter divorce; Sean’s lawyer and his contentiously feminist wife; Sean’s nearly deaf baker; a frustrated artist from Ukraine and his doting wife; a novelist of a literary stature equal to Sean’s, with his new wife and baby boy. But even with Sean deftly steering the conversation as he staggers from chair to chair, some secrets remain uncovered. The baker, in truth a Russian Jew who fled pogroms in Odessa to become a professor in apartheid-riven South Africa, remains a baker. And the novelist’s young wife, sneaking upstairs to snort cocaine on the pretense of checking on the baby, has a lurid past that the others—including hubby—couldn’t begin to imagine.
No less insightful and stylish than Huston’s previous fiction, but no matter how you stuff ’em, the lives of academics are about as exciting as turkey on a platter.