Friday, June 05, 2009

Madness and Murder: Philip Baruth, THE BROTHERS BOSWELL

Rarely do authors range as widely from book to book as Vermont author Philip Baruth. From an almost unknown fantasia that celebrates The Grateful Dead, to the evocative novel-in-stories "Dream of the White Village," to "The X President," there are few similarities other than a driving sense of narrative and passionate description.

Last month, Soho Press released THE BROTHERS BOSWELL, Baruth's first historical thriller. The novel is laid out in parts -- of which the first three, narrated by John Boswell, report John's determined pursuit of his brother James and James's patron, Dr. Samuel Johnson. Johnson, of course, is shaped on the historical personage known as "Dictionary Johnson," who took the literary world by storm in England's late 1700s. And James Boswell was his devoted attendant, describing his social world as well as his admired friend in "The Life of Johnson." The book became known as "Boswell's Life [of Johnson]" and marked out new turf in social documentary.

Baruth took a small mention of James Boswell's brother John and allowed a personage to grow from this sidewalk crevice of literary history. In this relentlessly paced thriller, John Boswell has recently been released from an insane asylum and is stalking the two men most important to him. Is he mad? Or was he unfairly detained in some vile plot of family and friends?

Abruptly, in part four of the volume, narrative shifts to a third-person form that centers on James Boswell instead; then the brothers' voices take alternating segments as the chase accelerates and potential murder comes closer.

The shifts act like a magician's sleight of hand, taking the focus away from the bold painting of another era that Baruth does to create the background and the characters. And the journaling and narrations become books within books, nested Russian dolls of information. Here's a snippet:
... what sours the joke is what I see as I descend the long line of stone stairs: a small crowd of people, maybe twenty-five or thirty of them, grouped around the gray granite well, which looks like an eight-foot sentry box but for the fact that it has no windows. The vessels these people have brought are spread out over the cobblestones in a long, ragged, snaking line.

It is mostly women, maid-servants and caddies and fishwives, and the men are mostly boys a good deal younger than myself. The few grown men are on the oldish side, smoking pipes or seated in the windbreak where the stairs empty out into the Cowgate.

Most of the crowd stands together in small knots of talk, only their casks and buckets holding their places in line. Some turn their faces to look up as I draw nearer, but they turn immediately away as the suit works its magic.

The scene is an ordinary one in the life of the city where the brothers Boswell reside, but James is about to lose all ordinariness of his own. He states, "I've been making my first fumbling attempts to reconcile love and affection with lust and rejection."

Deftly, Baruth tangles the curtain ropes of the stage, until madness seems to underlie reality itself, and what has been most certain becomes a dream -- until a clue again suggests that this too is imaginary.

I know, I sound bewildered. In some ways, I am -- the narration, the twists, the loves and lusts of the three men in the tale are Shakespearean in their costumes and changing voices.

So if you love a good Shakespearean drama, this novel is likely to suit you admirably. Madness and murder: ah yes, Macbeth. Think of the power of that one. Baruth's presentation is drawn from the same well.

No comments: