In his first novel, poet Benton (Birds, 2002, etc.) delivers a lyrical yet ultimately insubstantial story of an affair singed by mental illness.
Poet Bill, 49, meets Irina, a 25-year-old Russian coat-check-girl-turned-stripper-turned-poet, in a New York City video store—he spies her from across the room and recommends a movie; she phones in the middle of the night to tell him how much she liked it. From there, an average literary romance unfolds: Bill woos Irina with long walks, home-cooked dinners, copious amounts of wine and, of course, poetry. Lots and lots of poetry. They spend days taking walks around the city, translating Pasternak, making love. Little exists for them outside their courtship and exotic turns of phrase. But along with her supermodel body, sexual dynamism and talent for explicating Russian verse, Irina’s got a dark side. Abject moods begin to pepper their union, and Bill is forced to confront them for what they are: not merely blues or intimacy issues but manic depression that borders on psychosis. Her mercurial nature is a roadblock to any kind of stability in the relationship. Of course, part of Bill is attracted to her craziness—isn’t poetry borne of madness?—but eventually it becomes wearing, and he attempts to bring her down to earth. But as hard as he tries—with patience, pleading and eventually a psychiatric referral—Bill can’t tether Irina to reality any more that he could permanently cuff her to his side. The relationship is doomed, destined to grind to an unsatisfying end. And along the way, the novel becomes as repetitive as her mania. What lifts it on occasion is Benton’s imaginative, even melodic descriptions, some of which could stand alone as stanzas.
An uneven love story, with poetic moments.