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Dancer by Colum McCann
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Aug 29, 2010

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Read in August, 2010

I guess I'm just over the let's-analyze-a-genius genre, and have been for a while. I picked this up when it came across my desk at the bookstore, because I've loved other things McCann has written, but this . . . while it is undeniably beautifully written, and parts of it are quite compelling, it turns out he subject matter just didn't do it for me, and the main character -- real-life ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev -- is such an irredeemable jackass that I had a hard time really caring about him. I feel like "he's a GENIUS, you know, and therefore we excuse his excesses!" is an old trope with which I long ago grew tired.

Given the way Nureyev died, the book was bound to have a depressingly typical ending for a story about a gay man who lived through the 70s and 80s at the peak of his fame and sexual prowess. The book wisely treads lightly over this topic, but still, it has been done so many times that I'm a little bored even by the hint of it. I realize that (A) the reason so many stories about gay men end this way is because so many lives of gay men ended this way in the 80s and 90s, and (B) McCann doesn't want to just pretend that Nureyev didn't die or something, but it's still ground that's been covered enough times that I'm not that interested in pursuing it anymore.

The book has many, many merits, and its most compelling sections deal with Nureyev hardly at all, but more with the lives of ordinary Russians and Uzbeks in Kruschev's Soviet Union. McCann retains his usual excellence at inhabiting the heads and hearts of disparate people, from Soviet dance instructors to Venezuelan hustlers, and the story's third-person sections display the same chilling eye for the devastating detail that he displayed in Let the Great World Spin. But for a book that is meant to be a portrait of an explosive and passionate man, it is strange that its most effective passages would be the muted and cold ones that draw pictures of those considerably more ordinary (and less obnoxious) than the putative main character.
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message 1: by David (new)

David Jordan If you wan to read interesting stuff about the old USSR, try Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko crime novels -- "Gorky Park," "Red Square," etc. Smith's depictions of day-to-day Soviet life, with all the socio-political paranoia, food shortages and other bleaknesses, provide fascinating background to the mysteries Detective Renko tackles.


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