A visionary artist battles human, natural, and political elements in this offbeat novel.
Gillis’ (The Consequence of Skating, 2010, etc.) hero, Michael Benchere, is a brilliant architect who’s become a celebrity sculptor. The story flashes back to Benchere’s courtship of his college sweetheart, Marti, with whom he discovers his artistic gifts, and her later death from cancer. Newly grief-stricken, Benchere resolves to journey to Botswana, where he’ll sculpt an epic piece in Marti’s memory. He’s accompanied by various hangers-on including Rose and Stern, two stumbling FBI agents whose resemblance to Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is obviously intentional. Also making the trip are Zooie, Benchere’s daughter, who's a low-level rock performer, and Linda Darling, a reality TV star in need of rehab. Both of these subplots are largely tossed aside while others, like Benchere’s tangles with a money-hungry patron, are stretched too thin. Benchere ultimately finds new love after a violent encounter with local insurgents. The book’s tone regularly shifts from sentimental to slapstick to surreal, and there are frequent digressions about the nature of artistic creation and revolutionary struggle. And for some reason, the whereabouts of Benchere’s dog are noted on nearly every page.
At times there are simply too many ideas here for a short novel to juggle. Despite some touching passages, Gillis seems uncertain where to take his story and winds up trying with limited success to take it everywhere at once.