David Lentz’s newest novel defies categorization -- quite intentionally. That is because its unfolding storyline is recurrently interrupted by a dizz David Lentz’s newest novel defies categorization -- quite intentionally. That is because its unfolding storyline is recurrently interrupted by a dizzying variety of only apparently unrelated prose fragments: sonnets, book reviews, popular songs, quotations from Dante and Rimbaud -- even a letter to a congresswoman, asking for a letter carrier to bring mail to a postbox closer to the home of the narrator’s 87-year-old mother. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a plot here: there is. The two main characters of this story are Art and Grace Lovejoy. Art and Grace are, on the one hand, personifications. But they are also a modern couple living recognizably modern lives. Art is a freelance writer, a poet and also an inventor filing a patent for computer software. Grace is working on a thesis for her MFA in photography at Columbia. The photographs that comprise Grace’s thesis are of the beautiful mosaics that decorate New York City’s subway tunnels – an otherwise dehumanizing subterranean world where Art’s ill-paying freelance career requires him to spend too much of his time and energy. So the subway where the Lovejoys pause to appreciate the mosaics becomes one of the novel’s governing metaphors: Art’s first-person narration is a note from the underground, a chronicle of a “disquiet” for which each lovely mosaic is a palliative “gift of Grace.” The reader comes to understand that the mosaics are what Arthur calls “pixels” – the isolated fragments of a larger picture – and that “pixelation” is another of the novel’s major metaphors. That is because, as Lentz’s protagonists says, “Reality is unclear and informs us of its essence expressed by a pixelated aspect.” So the novel’s technique of narrative fragmentation, the repeated interruptions of the storyline, has been designed to be a depiction of the fragmentation and only partially discerned meaning inherent in life itself. In another of the novel’s metaphors, the “pixelated” nature of reality is compared to the panels of a “Rubik’s Cube” that can only be brought into alignment by the miracle of Love. A “21st century underground man,” Arthur Lovejoy’s life is a Kafkesque nightmare. For he suffers from what would be a paranoid delusion, except that his suspicion that the world is out to get him is entirely justified by the fact that his “personal privacy” is continually invaded by spying drones and government-controlled surveillance cameras. Like all of us, he is “a passenger in transit,” forever scurrying back and forth like a mole in a maze. Arthur is Lentz’s auto-fictional self-portrait of the artist as a not-so-young Sisyphus, doomed to an eternity of repetitive and meaningless labor. In another of the novel’s metaphors, Art Lovejoy’s travels through the New York City subway system are the wanderings of a modern-day Odysseus who is always in danger of being shipwrecked by the Sirens. Grace is his Penelope, the home base and lodestar of his underground journey. She is also his Beatrice, leading him out of this hell. But a linear plot is not what “The Fine Art of Grace” is all about. Instead, it is a tale that is really about its digressions. For it is a book that is organized more thematically than by the unfolding of a story – and the most fundamental of these themes is that Life’s struggles and hardships are counterpoised by its enduring blessings. At times this book is a song of Thanksgiving to this loveliness. Many of its sentences are a series of fragmentary meditations on the mystery of life, suffering and grace In the end it is Grace who puts Art “back together piece by piece.” When a subway nearly kills them both, their deliverance triggers Arthur’s final epiphany. Suddenly the “Cloud of unknowing” lifts and Art finds himself purged of his disquiet. There is much to admire in this complex and subtle book. ...more
What a splendid book this is. It is everything that a memoir should be -- profoundly honest, wise, humble, poignant and beautifully written. Subtitled “What a splendid book this is. It is everything that a memoir should be -- profoundly honest, wise, humble, poignant and beautifully written. Subtitled “an irregular education,” this second volume of Peter Coyote’s autobiography belongs to the venerable tradition of the spiritual autobiography – a searching meditation upon the stages of the soul’s growth. It is structured around the influence of a succession of “mentors” who guided and nurtured this metamorphosis: his powerful and difficult father, Morris; his Mafioso Uncle Harry; his scholarly and shrewd Uncle Bert; his childhood’s “emotional anchor,” Susie Howard, and her “extended family of black friends”; a jazz musician; a Republican businessman;his “second” father, the fashion designer Nino Cerruti; and the poet Gary Snyder, who introduced him to the practice of Zen Buddhism. These and other influences appear in the narrative, one after another, as the objects of retrospection, as the crucial personalities who were the catalysts of change and growth. In the process the “small, confused boy” Peter Cohon transforms into Peter Coyote the Hippie communard who transforms into a famous actor who (after a lifetime torn between the irreconcilable choices of Power and Love) at last finds a “Third Cure” in his vocation as a Zen Buddhist priest. It is the slow, surprising and often agonizing transformation of a pupa into a butterfly. Although the story of this unfolding happens to be a memoir written by a celebrity, it betrays no more attachment to the moment when the author was an international celebrity standing on a red carpet in Cannes than to the days when he was shooting drugs and eating road-kill. For it is a narration guided by a determination to look squarely at things exactly as they were and are and enlivened on every page by a keen eye for the details that illuminate a scene or a character. It is a stunning book. ...more
David Lentz’s touching and humble sonnets are love songs – elegant meditations on what true love really is and snapshots of a life two people have buiDavid Lentz’s touching and humble sonnets are love songs – elegant meditations on what true love really is and snapshots of a life two people have built together. In “Kissing Bridge,” a young couple pledge their troth upon a bridge of love that spans the river of time in a “snowbound, moonstruck land.” “When Life is cold, you are warm” is a paean to love as a refuge from life’s hardships. “Family Portrait” is a gently humorous tribute to family love as a vital support. “To Wit” celebrates the laughter -- the “lightning quick repartee,” the “high human comedy” of mature love. Reminiscent of the contention between love and time in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poignant final line of “When I look into your eyes” sums up the fragility of human happiness in a blink. There is a disarming passion and candor to these verses, as if one has been welcomed into someone else’s house – and privileged to overhear an intimate conversation.