Friday, March 17, 2006

A book you need to read.

The Book of Ruth by Frank Lentricchia.

Not to be confused with Jane Hamilton's novel of the same title.

Since we seem to be drifting further afield from reporting on articles about music these days (could it be we're slowly morphing into something else?), I thought I'd take this opportunity to flog one of my favorite books of recent years by an author who has the pole position in the race to become The Greatest Unknown Writer In America.

Frank Lentricchia made a name for himself in academia as a critic. He was famously dubbed by the Village Voice as 'The Dirty Harry of literary criticism' and is perhaps best known for his book 'Introducing Don DeLillo' which did just that for many readers. His work on modernist writers such as Eliot and Stevens is also highly regarded, but over a decade ago he turned his back on criticism to dedicate himself to prose.

As you might imagine, this move was met with much suspicion in both the academy and reviewing community. Didn't this guy know his place? Many reviewers just assumed Lentricchia was moonlighting and more-or-less ignored his superlative novellas 'Johnny Critelli' (lyrical meditation about transformative powers of memory) and 'The Knifemen' (brutal, headlong narrative about crippling effects of remembering). His ambitious follow-up, 'The Music of the Inferno,' a Joycean evocation of his Utica, N.Y. hometown is both harrowing and howlingly funny. It's actually not dissimilar from 'The Sopranos' in tone and Philip Roth's 'The Human Stain' in subject matter, although it predates both. It was met by an even more stultifying silence.

The neglect from both critics and readers began to seep into the work. Amazingly, Lentricchia transformed this material from self-pity into something hilarious, lacerating, and poignant. 'Lucchessi and the Whale' unfurls the story of unknown writer Thomas Lucchessi in remarkable and occasionally surrealist snippets that recall the Calvino of 'Mr. Palomar.' The centerpiece of the book is a long section that grapples with Melville - another writer unknown in his time - and The Great White Whale and stands as some of the most imaginative criticism about 'Moby-Dick' and a wonderful prose reimagining of the same. Despite its significant and singular achievements, the book was below the radar of even the most astute lit blogs.

All of which brings us to his latest: 'The Book of Ruth.' It's simply a great novel - in terms of its narrative sweep and propulsion, its creation of compelling characters, its stinging wit, and the jaw-dropping rhythms and quality of its prose. The blurb on the back from Jay Parini has it exactly right when comparing the book to both Graham Greene and JM Coetzee. It's of that high quality. The plot sounds ungainly in synopsis - it involves a reclusive photographer, linked to both Casto and JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, who is hired to snap pics of Saddam during the runup to Gulf War I - but it works perfectly on the page. Thomas Lucchessi makes another appearance but this time he's less a comic figure brilliantly sketched with one hand, and a more fully rounded individual as befits the narrative of this book.

It's a sad irony of the publishing industry that Lentricchia's most accomplished, accessible, and purely enjoyable novel had to be released by a small press with little funds to publicize it. We like to believe that great art eventually - decades, even centuries later - reaps the acclaim it deserves. But why wait? Seek this out now.


Blogger Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

Nice post. I remember well reading Knifemen/Critelli on your recommendation, and dug both. And yeah, that is one SMALL press. Stressing that the book's a "beauty to hold" seems a bit off the mark, but whatever.

3:16 PM  

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