QUEEN OF SWORDS by William Kotzwinkle


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Especially with the memory of C. D. B. Bryan's wearisome Beautiful Women;' Ugly' Scenes still fresh (p. 672), the subject of middle-aged adultery is hardly an irresistible one. But Kotzwinkle, re-emerging as a distinctive writer after recent flirtations with commerce (E. T.) and whimsy (Christmas at Fontaine 's), uses comedy and a fable-like tone to make this small tale a fresh, fetching, almost-satisfying variation on the old, old story. His narrator is a 50-ish writer named Eric--not very successful (author of ""Unknown Famous Novels""), still in love with plump artist-wife Janet, but forever striving and restless. While sedentary Janet is content with nothing but working, eating donuts, and staring at the sea (they live on the New England seacoast), Eric jogs, tries to play the flute, inhales herbal vapors. . . and has psychosomatic heart attacks. Inevitably, then, he is all too ready to be enthralled by Nora Lingard, whom he encounters at an est-like therapy gathering: she's 45+ but ageless, a bohemian free spirit, the widow of a famous experimental composer, and herself a passionate virtuoso on the bongo drums. Together Eric and Nora walk out of the est session; soon they're sharing music and karate lessons; like Sung, Eric has ""to experience those parts of himself that another woman brought into focus. . . . I'm finding myself as a warrior and a musician and I've sought for this all my life."" He leaves Janet, moves in with Nora, feels his creativity surging. But this idyll is short-lived, of course. Also in residence at Nora's are her bongo instructor and the drug-dealing karate instructor. (""Nora's house felt like a home for husbands and the long kitchen table had many other chairs."") Nora talks non-stop, in and out of bed. Eric is victimized in a few Thomas Berger-esque mishaps. His supposed writing breakthrough turns into pornography, then into an empty commercial saga. (""Yes, it was coming back, here were the pretentious characterizations spanning generations, and yes--tears streamed down my cheeks--here was the plantation house, the arranged marriage. . . . My fingers began to dance across the keys in an initial flurry of dead prose."") And, after a glimmer or two of self-awareness, he wants Janet back. . . but too late. Despite a thin central notion and the cartoony broadness of some of the humor: a charming, funky cautionary tale, with familiar material (male menopause, marital discontent) given a bright, obliquely touching overhaul.

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1983
Publisher: Putnam