Middle-American values, late middle age and the Middle Ages collide engagingly in this anything but middling debut novel from Wodicka, a New York native now living in Berlin.
The book is narrated, in a crusty voice Mark Twain surely would have admired, by sexagenarian Burt Hecker, a depressed widower who sells the family bed-and-breakfast and heads for Europe; a fellow traveler, if you will, with an all-female “medieval chant workshop” planning to celebrate the 900th birthday of the noted anchoress and composer St. Hildegard von Bingen. The mission interests Burt, a medieval re-enactor and founder of the Confraternity of Times Lost Regained, because he prefers to live in an earlier time (1256 CE, as he calmly explains to bewildered police who apprehend him for driving a “borrowed” car). But what’s really on Burt’s wandering mind is a possible reunion with his estranged son, Tristan, renamed Tim and living in Prague among a gaggle of folk musicians. Burt is accompanied everywhere by fond memories of his late wife Kitty, and guilty ones of his other parental failure: with daughter June, now a California geologist (there’s that past again). Burt is a marvelous comic creation: Bearer of a Cyrano-sized nose, he slashes away at inexcusable modernities (while rejecting everything “O.O.P.”—i.e., Out of Period). He even holds his own against his formidable mother-in-law, Anna Bibko, an aged matriarch terrorizing the (wonderfully imagined) fictional country of Lemkovyna in the Carpathian Mountains. Somehow, out of all the hilarity (reminiscent, variously, of Joseph Heller, John Irving and Stanley Elkin at his most surreally deranged) emerges a complex, plaintive affirmation of the splendors and miseries of history, and, hence, of the troubled crucible of family.
The past is a blast in this terrific novel.