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J U L Y  1 9 9 8

Books
More Is Less
by Ralph Lombreglia


The Fall of a Sparrow
by Robert Hellenga.
Scribner, 464 pages,

$25.00.


ROBERT Hellenga's first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, was one of the literary hits of 1994, a highly readable yet sophisticated and surprising book about artistic and sexual passion. Set in 1966-1967, the novel tells the story of Margot Harrington, a twenty-nine-year-old American book conservator who takes a leave from her library job to join the international effort to save the art of Florence after the disastrous flooding of the Arno River.

Margot has three love affairs in the year covered by The Sixteen Pleasures, which represent stages of emergence from her chrysalis. The most important affair is with an older man, Alessandro Postiglione, an Italian painting restorer. Margot discovers a rare medieval erotic book in the Florentine convent where she is staying, and she and Sandro (as he's known) go on to act out most of the "sixteen pleasures" depicted in its explicit plates, as we move through a well-spun and suspenseful story in which that erotic text becomes a talisman for Margot, a magical object, a personal and professional obsession and a key to her identity.

HELLENGA'S new novel, The Fall of a Sparrow, reads like The Sixteen Pleasures writ large -- very large. It labors strenuously to carry the weight of self-conscious literary seriousness. All the preoccupations of the first novel are in evidence again, but this time with the number of plot elements literally tripled and the main character saddled with enough grief and confusion to befuddle a demigod. The Fall of a Sparrow is premised on the least auspicious element imaginable -- the gruesome, violent, early death of a man's daughter -- and then the book's many pages present a baroque elaboration of a theme that, lest we miss it, is overtly stated at the end: the taste of death need not spoil life.
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The title The Fall of a Sparrow could refer to almost anyone or anything in the book, but the titular sparrow for the most part seems to be a twenty-two-year-old American woman named Carolyn ("Cookie") Woodhull, who was one of scores of casualties of the 1980 terrorist bombing of a train station in Bologna, where she had just arrived to study international law after an undergraduate career at Harvard. Her death took place about six years before the opening of the novel, which is primarily about her father, Alan ("Woody") Woodhull, a middle-aged classics professor at a place called St. Clair College, in Illinois.

Woody's emotional life stopped when Cookie died. Though he has carried on nobly in the years since, raising his remaining two daughters alone after his wife's breakdown and retreat into a nunnery, teaching his students with the only passion he can muster (intellectual passion for the classics), he has not really been alive. He has not, for one thing, been intimate with a woman since returning to America after Cookie's death. The admirable and artistically serious project of The Fall of a Sparrow is to depict Woody's entry into his "vita nuova."

The doorway into that new life is, oddly enough, a guitar. On his way back from an impulsive trip to attend a Harvard memorial service for Cookie and two other deceased members of her class (a trip arranged by the author primarily to have Woody learn that his daughter did not go to her grave a virgin), Woody -- a certifiable blues-music nut as well as a scholar of antiquity -- stops in a music store in Ann Arbor and finds a rare and expensive National Steel guitar, the kind of gleaming silvery-metal guitar that Paul Simon mentions in his famous song "Graceland" ("The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar"). At the utterly extravagant price of $8,500, the guitar represents an irrational but redemptive decision for the hero. Once he buys it, the guitar becomes the emblem of his transformation, much like Margot's erotic book in The Sixteen Pleasures.

The distinct difference, though, is that Margot's unearthed treasure relates directly to elements at the core of that novel. Even more significant, Margot's book is a pivotal dramatic device, engendering the plot that acts out the transformation of her life. Woody's fancy guitar, seemingly so full of gleaming hubris, does not function in that pivotal way. The detailed attention that Hellenga devotes to guitar lore and blues music grows tedious -- not because it isn't interesting or well presented (it usually is) but because it continually keeps the author from tending to his core dramatic business. Unfortunately, much the same must be said for many other structural elements of this ambitious but too complicated novel.

As in The Sixteen Pleasures, sexuality is a major preoccupation in The Fall of a Sparrow. Right after Woody gets his new guitar, one of his most talented students decides to make her own transition into a new life by seducing him. But this headstrong young woman, Turi Mirsadiqi, is not just any student; she's the daughter of Woody's first lover from his undergraduate days, Allison, who is now married to a spectacularly wealthy Iranian businessman, Alireza Mirsadiqi, who is in turn about to become a major benefactor of the college where Woody teaches. We eventually learn that Allison was one of the last friends to see Cookie alive (the Mirsadiqis live in Rome, and they put her on that train to Bologna), and that when Woody rushed to Italy after the bombing, he repeatedly made love with Allison while Cookie lay in the morgue and his own wife lost her mind. Now, of course, by committing this shameless betrayal of both Allison and her powerful husband, Woody is moving beyond a merely unusual adultery into the violation of near mythic taboo. What's even stranger is that he does so in a largely passive and detached emotional state, with much intellectualized self-scrutiny and blues-guitar picking, but almost no compunction or misgivings.

IF this summary (and it doesn't cover half the book's contents) leaves you wondering whether The Fall of a Sparrow is sex farce or updated Greek tragedy, the answer is that it's by turns both and neither and several other things besides.

Woody's connection to the Mirsadiqi family is the real heart of the novel's dramatic conflict, but it's also the occasion of a most peculiar inattention to dramaturgy on Robert Hellenga's part. Whether a novelist is writing a farce, a tragedy, or anything else, he cannot create a story in which the hero has illicit sex with both the wife and the daughter of an Iranian multimillionaire (the wife being also one of the hero's oldest friends) and not realize that this sexual tangle is going to upstage every other element of the book. Readers are going to stare fixedly at it, waiting for the delicious unraveling.

Yet Hellenga seems not to have felt the dramatic demands of his own creation. The Fall of a Sparrow asks readers to accept its unlikely but riveting premise and then keeps them waiting interminably for the other shoe to drop. Meanwhile, the author seems more interested in his story's various literary precedents and analogues, or in subplots so elaborate and distracting that they should have been novels in their own right. Add to all this Hellenga's narrative tic of repeatedly leading readers to expect particular scenes and then skipping past those scenes to offer instead a summary of what happened, and you have a dramaturgy that could clear most theaters by intermission. One wants to say what the kingly and forgiving Alireza Mirsadiqi says when -- in a magical though oddly superfluous scene in a helicopter -- he at long last confronts Woody about sleeping not only with his wife but with his daughter as well: "You have gone where I cannot follow you." Or what Woody's Italian lover, Gabriella, says about the overuse of parmigiano-reggiano by certain Italian cooks: Basta. Enough.

"Purity of heart is to will one thing," Kierkegaard wrote. I thought of that aphorism a number of times while reading The Fall of a Sparrow, because the book wills so many things. And "wills" is the word. To return to Hellenga's beloved guitar for a moment: the most emotionally convincing guitar music is usually also the most "guitaristic," in which the fingerings lie most naturally on the fretboard, the anatomy of the human hand relating nicely to the layout of the instrument. Watching a good guitarist play, especially a blues guitarist, one is struck by how little the fingers move in relation to the amazing sounds that result. If the player gets into the neck position best suited for what is being played, everything necessary is right under the hand. The fingers don't have to contort unnaturally, or stretch all over the fretboard, or play too many notes in an attempt to compensate for a lack of emotional power.

Robert Hellenga is a unique literary guitarist with a fascinating mind, but in The Fall of a Sparrow we encounter that mind too directly, at the expense of our immersion in the music. The Sixteen Pleasures was an artful and sexy novel about art and sex, a book that seduced readers with a good story, an ingratiating voice, and a surprising (but relevant) knowledge of everything from the workings of big-time art auctions to the physical chemistry of painting restoration to the emotional chemistry of human longing. The Fall of a Sparrow contains plenty of art and sex and knowledge too, but in this book Robert Hellenga allowed himself, rather than us, to be seduced by his own fecundity of invention.


Ralph Lombreglia is the author of
Men Under Water (1990) and Make Me Work (1994).

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; More Is Less; Volume 282, No. 1; pages 100 - 104.

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