PICTURE PALACE by Paul Theroux
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Paul Theroux is such a masterful entertainer, such a smoothly arresting stylist, that it seems ungrateful to complain when he uses his blinding dazzle to keep us from looking beneath the surface. But let's say it up front: this new Theroux charmer--the slowly unpeeling autobiography of pioneer photographer Maude Coffin Pratt--is foolish almost as often as it is delicious or insinuating. Maude at 72 is famous--for her uncompromising portraits of blacks, louts, and celebrities; for her eccentric, tough-old-broad Yankee grit. So opportunistic ""archivist"" Frank Fusco has moved in with Maude on Cape Cod, determined to assemble a Pratt Retrospective from the crates of photos in Maude's abandoned windmill. The unearthing of old prints, of course, triggers brooding memories (""the picture palace of my mind""), memories that come in two entwined varieties. The public triumph: talking back to imperious Stieglitz, ""doing"" the top literati, finding that a camera can be a weapon. And more important, the private torment: ""I was a photographer for love. Orlando was the reason for my camera."" Orlando? Homely Maude's beautiful brother Ollie, object of a fierce incestuous passion that is the source of all her artistry: ""It's the wounded who take to art."" If that seems a trifle simplistic, wait till young Maude comes home and sees Orlando and lovely sister Phoebe doing what Maude has only fantasized; she goes blind (temporary) and later nods knowingly about blissful suicide pacts when Ollie and Phoebe die in a boating ""accident."" Only when a fiagrante delicto photo of O. and P. turns up in the windmill (Maude took it but forgot) does she realize the real reason for the boat suicide: ""I had killed them with a picture""--they died because they knew that she knew. If this melodrama schema were the most blatant flaw here, one might swallow it, just to enjoy the rich camera talk, the expert narrative timemaneuvers, the buoyant atmospheres. But Theroux's blueprint also calls for some contrived set-ups right out of TV sit-com, a final irony (no one recognizes Maude at her own retrospective) right out of Hollywood shlock, and a cutesy celebrity parade (""Those are my loins,"" pants D. H. Lawrence, making a heavy pass) right out of your garden-variety historical romance. Tongue-in-cheek? Perhaps. But Theroux writes far too well (even the most objectionable sequences offer line-byline pleasure) to settle glibly for breezy pastiche when a bit more concentration could probably have truly pinned down Maude Pratt, her art, and her heart.

Pub Date: June 13th, 1978
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin