In this brilliant novel, Isaac Hooker (a character loosely based on artist Jean Michel Basquiat and about whom Fernanda Eberstadt has written in two previous novels, Low Tide, 1985, and Isaac and His Devils, 1991) is a small town New Hampshire wunderkind who, when awarded a scholarship to Harvard, drops out and goes to New York City, “which everyone came to, on the supposition that here he would be better equipped to execute his life’s work, whatever it might be.” A mugging, a broken arm, a bout of homelessness, and a total of two years of down-and- outness lead, by a series of deftly narrated chances and happenstances, to an art class in a Henry Street residence for homeless men, where Isaac works in the kitchen. He watches then joins the class and finds salvation “hungry as a thief for orange and scarlet and green and purple crayons, for dry, whispery charcoals, thick sheets of empty paper.” However, “every subject in the world” seems to be a “brightly colored cluster bomb” and every memory has “a fizzing fuse on it waiting to blow up in your face.” After some days of staring at the paper, he begins to draw what is in his memory: his room in Gilboa and the home that he left there. Creating pictures is now all he wants to do, and his drawings of empty rooms reek of loneliness and guilt. Then he begins to draw people—specifically, a tribe of dead people, including his father in his coffin. “Something big had changed,” and Eberstadt permits readers to view this birth of an artist, to witness his struggles first with memory, then with materials and technique and the fires of creation. The discovery of the demands of unrelenting recognition and their consequences will come next. First, however, Isaac has to survive. Eberstadt must plot his way out of Henry Street.
Depending on a lucky coincidence to resolve a plot is considered amateurish, but allowing it to begin one is brilliant (Oedipus at the crossroads, for example). Therefore, Isaac must discover that he is not alone. Acting on a hint from a friend, Isaac goes unannounced to the Aurora Foundation for the Arts to seek work, perhaps as an installer or a framer, but his encounter with Alfred Gebler, director of the Foundation, ends disastrously: Isaac has been directed into Alfred’s office and has seated himself in the Director’s chair, making himself quite at home, his homeless smell and dress contrasting sharply with the white purity of the Foundation. Alfred, outraged at this unseemly intrusion by this “ogre,” throws Isaac out of his office. Wandering, Isaac stops by Washington Square Park for rounds of speed chess, where he encounters, by chance, a friend from college, Casey Hanrahan, who has a job with Aurora and to whom Aurora has given “a hundred thousand dollars and five thousand feet of exhibition space to fill.” Casey promises to win Isaac a second audience with Alfred at a later date, but Isaac insists on going back the same evening to retrieve his oil sticks, which he left behind in Alfred’s office. Encountering a lonely Alfred, a man who made “frantic efforts never to be alone,” Isaac not only retrieves his oil sticks but also receives dinner, a night on the town, and an invitation to the opening of Willa Perkins’s opera and the party at the Geblers’s afterward. Thus, he enters the cosseted world of foundations and the New York art “scene” of the 1980’s, his chance encounter with a long-lost friend abruptly and arbitrarily reversing his fortune. Thus begins Isaac’s association with the people who provide place and comfort and a measure of peace for those artists “lucky” enough to be chosen beneficiaries of Aurora’s wealth.
Readers are wary, however. Early and sudden material success often destroys the artistic talent, whatever the medium. Still, artistic genius is heaven-sent, the inspired, mad artist a “son of heaven.” In this novel, Isaac emerges as one of these sons of heaven who, indeed, meets and grapples and couples with the daughters of the earth. The result, as figured in Eberstadt’s rich and succulent novel, is wonderfully worth reading.
Eberstadt structures the novel like a symphony, exploring fully and richly its principal themes of the connections, often ironic, of art and wealth, and the rise and fall of the artist in the rich world of capitalism. A number of subsidiary motifs balance, shade, and darken the whole. Its reasonably straight-forward narrative—interpreted with necessary (and marvelously skillful) flashbacks to fill in background about characters, the Aurora Foundation, and the art world of New York City—chronicles the passion of Isaac, characterizing not only individuals but also the city of New York and, indeed, postmodern America. These themes include: immigration, high society, the sundering of the iron curtain, the city, the country, class, poverty and homelessness, wealth and conspicuous consumption, marriage, infidelity, and, above all else, art. Eberstadt renders each in action, dialogue, and exquisitely rich detail; her mastery of keen observation and the English language is...
(The entire section is 2074 words.)