Magazine article The New Yorker

Red Loves Rex, Alas

Magazine article The New Yorker

Red Loves Rex, Alas

Article excerpt

Once upon a time--in 1971, if you must know--I read a slender book that seemed to me original, droll, and mysteriously precious. Wrapped in a posterish Roy Lichtenstein dust jacket, and set in narrow-measure boldface sans serif, Frederic Tuten's "The Adventures of Mao on the Long March" was a deadpan amalgam of quotation, parody, history, and fanciful fiction whose central image is that of Mao Tse-tung as a keen fan of Godard films and Minimal art, a Pateresque aesthete with a billion people on his hands. In an age when Mao posters adorned college dorms and Donald Barthelme ruled the nouvelle vague of fiction, the book made more sense than you might think; crediting a totalitarian icon with a thoroughly hip American mentality was wishful thinking of a merciful sort during the grim denouement of our intervention in Vietnam. "The Adventures of Mao" had Barthelme's bold surrealism without his personal quality, his short stories' effect of being coded private reports from the front lines of city and, specifically, Village life. With all its bland absurdity, Tuten's book took a lofty tone; it was a collage of his soul's contents, where militant socialism and languid aestheticism coexisted in peaceful stalemate.

When I recently tried to find the volume, in the safe niche within my diffuse and uncatalogued holdings where I imagined I had cached it, it had vanished. Perhaps this is fitting, since after 1971 the author, too, rather vanished. Where has he been? Earning a living, of course, with Guggenheim grants and teaching stints--a number of years in Paris, countless years as director of the Graduate Program in Literature and Creative Writing at City College in New York. A loyal band of fellow-Manhattanites (Susan Sontag, Joseph McElroy, Jerome Charyn, Walter Mosley) provided warm endorsements for the three titles that Tuten turned out in three decades: "Tallien: A Brief Romance" (1988), "Tintin in the New World: A Romance" (1993), and "Van Gogh's Bad Cafe: A Love Story" (1997). All are pastiches of a sort. The first, addressed to the author's dead father, a "renegade Baptist and radical," tells in accents both orotund and colloquial the true story of Jean-Lambert Tallien, a French revolutionary who led the attack on Robespierre and survived the Terror, dying miserably in 1820. The second, in an irresistibly comic diction imitating, one assumes, the French, follows the adolescent detective Tintin, with his faithful dog Snowy and his crusty sidekick Captain Haddock, to Peru, where the major characters from Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain" have assembled. The third is a short but turgid pipe dream conflating the narrator's seedy, soggy times in the East Village with Van Gogh's crazy last days in Auvers-sur-Oise; his favorite dive, the Bad Cafe, translates as Mousey's Bar on Avenue C. Tuten's protagonists fall in love, which weakens their altruistic vocations. Political idealism, wistful aestheticism, counterproductive obsessive love, Francophilia, red hair, gemlike flames, a borrowed voice: all these ingredients are present, though more lugubriously, in his new novel, "The Green Hour" (Norton; $24.95).

The book is his most conventional. It features a heroine with the upscale name of Dominique, who moves through clouds of academic, New Lefty glamour. She is an art historian, teaching at a New York City university, who has survived one bout of cancer and its treatment but is permanently afflicted with love for a high-minded drifter called Rex. Rex, as it happens, is the name Tuten gave his father in "Tallien," and, like that Rex, this one dabbles in social activism, intermittently organizing the world's laborers into unions and strikes. His main activity, though, seems to be tormenting Dominique by reappearing in her life when it suits him and disappearing whenever she settles into a contented dependency. Their most sustained cohabitation comes in the working-class Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, where they live above a cafe whose green illumination gives the apartment the tint of the novel's title:

"The green hour," she said, "l'heure verte, called so because in the early evening everyone in Paris went to the cafes to drown themselves in milky green absinthe. …

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