A mannered, somewhat formulaic account of a critic’s long and complicated friendship with an artist, presented by Hustvedt (Yonder, 1998, etc.) with just a touch of melodrama amid the melancholy.
Bill Wechsler is a nice Jewish boy from suburban New Jersey who, after college, came to New York, in the 1940s, to paint. With first wife Lucille, he had his only child—a son, Mark. For decades, Bill worked in obscurity, making money in the daytime, painting in the evenings, his work so atypical that few galleries knew what to make of it. But then, in 1975, the Columbia critic and art historian Leo Hertzberg buys one of Bill’s paintings at a SoHo gallery, and the two become close friends. Partly because of Leo’s interest, Bill is soon widely recognized. He and second wife Violet (a suicidal NYU student) buy a loft in the same building that Leo lives in with his wife Erica and son Matthew, and the two families become almost one household for several years, even sharing a summer house in Vermont. After Matthew dies in a boating accident at summer camp, however, he withdraws into his grief—compounded not long afterward when Bill dies of a heart attack. Leo tries to look out for the now fatherless Mark, who’s become a fixture of the downtown club scene and has nearly overdosed several times—but Leo had to back off after discovering Mark’s theft of $7,000 from him. Eventually, Mark becomes friends of the transgressive artist Teddy Giles, whose portraits of corpses have made him a sensation in the art world. But Teddy is soon arrested for the murder of his 13-year-old boyfriend, and Mark is implicated in the crime. For Leo, by now an older man, it is one more reminder that the world has become a stranger and a grayer place without Bill in it.
Well-narrated plot and credible people—but told in a gossipy, insider’s tone likely to put off anyone not in (or interested in) the New York art world.