A father searches for his vanished son in this edgily comic first novel, which has fun with the worlds of art and academia.
California athlete Owen Burr loses an eye in a college water polo match and his berth in the Athens Olympics. He impulsively goes to Berlin to become an artist and gets embroiled in the drug-fueled machinations of an art-world star. Back in the U.S., Owen’s widowed father, classics professor Joseph Burr, has heard nothing from or about Owen until he receives a disturbing hospital report. His efforts to rescue his son start with a lecture he gives near the site of the games that is meant to signal Owen. But when a provocateur runs onstage and hands Joseph a Molotov cocktail, the stunned academic's effort to throw it safely away from the audience ends in a fiery explosion, and a riot ensues. More violence at Art Basel, a hungry polar bear in Iceland, the theories of Laminalism and Liminalism, and a helpful Siren named Stevie are part of the Continental odyssey during which Burr père et fils manage to constantly stay out of touch with each other. Yet sometimes, unknowingly, they’re in sync: Each finds himself challenged by camping equipment in separate, humorous scenes. Chancellor, in a rare misstep, has Owen kick down a 60-pound German door the same day he leaves a hospital barely able to walk. That aside, the author maintains an almost thrillerlike pace while taking well-aimed shots at academic and art-market fads and helping two lost souls through essential transformations. It’s a bracingly rich mélange of a novel in which scholarship spotlights Al Pacino’s Scarface and plain exposition suddenly turns into prose that might be noirish or downright strange: “Everything of value stretched and shrapneled, lapping the circular walls in lethal vorticity.”
Some readers may stumble over the Latin, argot and allusions, but these are minor challenges in Chancellor’s polymorphous entertainment.