Watkins continues his obsession with the romantic sons of small-town New England fishing families, this time with a naive young painter who finds in a corrupt and dangerous Europe the adventure of a lifetime.
In 1939, David Halifax, nephew of the WWI flyboy hero of In the Blue Light of African Dreams (1998, not reviewed), gets a mysterious scholarship granting him a three-month sojourn at the Paris art school of the ex-patriot Russian artist Alexander Pankratov. Sensing a tangled relationship linking the moody Pankratov, his bored nude model Valya, peculiar students Marie-Claire and Balard, and the spineless art dealer Fleury, Halifax eschews the absinthe-drenched temptations of café society and, when classes end, shuts himself in his seedy apartment hoping to paint great art. When Fleury effortlessly sells a homework assignment of sketches Halifax made of existing works, Halifax decides to stay in Paris post-scholarship and soon finds himself recruited—with Pankratov, his students, and members of the French criminal underground—in a frantic effort to conceal artwork from Nazi pillagers. Along the way, he learns that Pankratov, having forsaken a dream of becoming a great painter, is a master restorer and forger. When the Nazis overrun Paris, Pankratov and Halifax team up to create a series of ingenious fakes in the styles of artists the Nazis favor. Fleury swaps the fakes for “decadent” works of Picasso, van Gogh, and others that have been confiscated and would ordinarily be destroyed. Robertson Davies told an almost identical story of an unlikely forger fooling Nazis, and making great art, in his magically playful What’s Bred in the Bone; Watkins in turn (The Story of My Disappearance, 1998, etc.) celebrates bohemian Paris with his splendid eye for exceptional characters and visceral detail, as Halifax accepts a beat-the-clock challenge of faking a legendary Vermeer.
Yet another American in Paris searching for the crumbs of Hemingway’s moveable feast— and learning the marvelous French art of the suave betrayal.