This novel seems calculated to cure the reader of any optimism he may have, to smash his rose-colored glasses.
The son of Russian immigrants, Ithiel Ingbar is on his own at 15, working brutal jobs and defending himself in Chicago, where it “was beat or be beaten, eat or be eaten, the usual animal kingdom stuff.” But Ingbar’s talent for drawing is his saving grace, and since it’s his only hope of escape from this hell, he tenaciously holds onto it. Friends help him get a security job at an art museum, a job that comes with free art classes. But every time hope beckons, it’s dashed. Booted from the museum, he joins the Army for the GI Bill benefits, but he’s treated like an outsider, nearly dies of spinal meningitis and eventually goes AWOL. But he keeps going, two steps forward, one step back. After making another hopeful start as an artist in Boston, he’s framed for the murder of a runaway girl. Ironically, the Army, having first dibs on him, rescues him from the Boston judicial system. Years later, in the bleak present day—recession, endless wars, the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, rampant unemployment and the rest of it—Ithiel is back in Chicago, breaking even as a working artist. He has a good woman, and marrying her and starting a family seems almost possible. But does Ithiel really have a chance in this rigged world? The rage-filled, often angry narrative can seem like a bad dream. When not focused on Ingbar being thwarted yet again, it shows a broader picture of how stupidity and greed have made a shambles of society and the economy. Sexton (Desert Flower, 2009), who’s also a poet and artist, has an ear and an eye for detail, and the impressionistic descriptions help illuminate the narrative. Early on, readers may notice a somewhat distracting habit of rhyming: “Girls who had given him the eye now turned away when he passed by,” and “yet fever bright from the incandescent light.” Nonetheless, Sexton proves to be an impressive wordsmith who delights in roiling madness.
Good eats for readers with a taste for gall and wormwood.