Book review: A culture of vultures; When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth by Fernanda Eberstadt, Harvill, pounds 15.99

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The Independent Culture
The big bad world is there to pay for art. Make it pay," proclaims the actress Miriam Rooth to a struggling painter in Henry James's The Tragic Muse. That was 1890. In Fernanda Eberstadt's third novel, set in the Manhattan art world of the late Eighties, everybody pays.

Dolly Gebler, heiress to a pharmaceutical fortune, worships art and has raised a temple to her deity in the midst of an East Village slum. A vision in glass and steel, the Aurora Foundation is run by her and her feckless husband Alfred. They are arbiters of taste, subsidisers of the avant-garde, hosts of lavish parties and cunning entrepreneurs. Dolly is intense, intelligent, regal, high-minded. Alfred is a middle-aged sybarite devoid of shame or inner resources, perpetually in quest of distracting company and a good dinner.

A poor Jewish boy from Queens, he both resents and is addicted to Dolly's punitive largesse. They remain together for the sake of their children, already urban sophisticates mouthing the canons of a garbage culture.

Into their elite milieu comes Isaac Hooker, rustic genius and New Hampshire hayseed. At 17, he won a scholarship to Harvard, dropped out, lived on the streets, skivvied in a men's hostel, stumbled into an art class. Unfashionable, an irredeemable slob, he paints to save his damaged soul, pouring out gorgeous narratives of his deprived childhood and Biblical tableaux in colours sensuous and sublime.

Alfred, who regards him as an amusing grotesque, gets him a job at Aurora, introduces him to Dolly and persuades him to look at his paintings. Isaac, clueless about the techniques of extracting money from the big bad world, is astonished by Dolly's extravagant praise. In blissful and destructive confusion, she falls in love with the paintings, then with him. He is her hero, her noble lout, her pure soul whose genius she feeds with sex and smoked hams.

The novel unfolds in a series of cleverly intercut vignettes, focusing alternately on the three principals and progressing by increments until we know them better than they know themselves. Entertaining minor characters provide opportunities for gossip, theorising and lengthy dialogues which are both inconsequential and deeply revealing.

The social anthropology is right on. Alfred observes that the dichotomy between patrons and artists is nowhere more apparent than in the coat- check, "one half of which was hung in sable coats and chesterfields, the other in mangy thrift shop lumber jackets. Of course, this being the art world, the lumber jackets were probably making more money than the sables." Eberstadt shows us New York as cultural Molloch, a harsh city where people live "like scorpions in a bottle". Patronage colludes with commerce and the media to turn inspiration into made-to-orders for rich mediocrities. And she is clear about the way visual arts invite cupidity. "This condition of lumpen physicality, this one-of-a-kind thingness ... that made art a commodity as volatile as pork bellies, precious as diamonds, more material than money."

Eberstadt editorialises at length on aesthetics, education, religion and politics, often using her characters as mere mouthpieces for her own speculations and opinions. But her comedy of culture is more serious than flippant, and they all get enough rope to hang themselves - as in their deluded optimism over the fall of the Soviet Union.

Above all, the novel is the chronicle of a painting: its sources, its evolution and the love of the two people involved in its making. It is also a homage to painting itself, countering the cliche that it - like the novel - is dead. For Eberstadt painting is vital, magical, thrilling. She honours its low-tech methods, the passion and patience involved in its making. Like Isaac, she is in love with colour and has a feel for its subtleties and associations, wielding it in virtuoso descriptions of nature and art, as if she has forgotten she's a writer and not a painter.

She is good on the way that patronage sucks the life from talent: how it "infantalises" its recipient. Is Dolly Lady Bountiful or is she just appropriating Isaac and his work? When he asks why she gives her money to artists rather than the poor and homeless, he isn't being rhetorical. Even when the art market collapses with the Berlin Wall, the gilded Geblers survive to buy again.

In the light of Isaac's burnt-out end, it's annoying that Eberstadt lets them off so lightly. Either she prefers understanding to justice or she is unable to condemn them utterly. But her faith that art remains the vehicle by which the divine penetrates our lives is moving and convincing.