As a book reviewer, you come to expect a certain amount of hyperbole on the part of publishers when launching their new writers. But I can't help thinking that to compare a debut author to John Updike, Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Philip Roth on the cover of the proof copy – the publisher's words, not anyone else's – is to put an unbearable amount of expectation on the poor soul in the spotlight.
Stuart Nadler is another graduate of the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop whose alumni – including Cheever and Roth – have won 17 Pulitzer prizes between them. His debut collection of short stories is undeniably accomplished and sometimes moving, but their quality is uneven and there is a repetitiveness of subject matter that detracts from, rather than enhances, their resonant power.
There are echoes of the motifs that have concerned Roth and Updike over their long careers. Nadler shares Updike's obsession with small-town, middle-class morals and sexuality, and he has a whiff of Roth's black humour with regards to the Jewish faith, guilt and mortality. So, we have lots of people dying and grieving in these stories, and lots of people having inappropriate affairs with one another. “In the Book of Life” concerns a man who starts sleeping with his best friend's daughter, only to get entangled in a very messy situation very quickly. Nadler proves himself adept at creating tension through oblique dialogue, and the lack of communication between characters is a theme that runs throughout the book.
But “In the Book of Life” also highlights one of Nadler's problems: he doesn't seem sure how to end a narrative. In this instance, there is a rather clunky sting in the tail, that somehow negates what has gone before. Other stories peter out with the feeling that nothing much has been achieved.
The exception is “Our Portion, Our Rock”, a story that contains all the author's requisite sexual transgressions and death, in which a lawyer is having to deal with his dying father while his own marriage falls apart and he sleeps with his friend's wife. The ending of this story offers a glimpse at possible redemption, lifting the whole tale and deepening its impact.
But the rest of the writing in The Book of Life rarely matches this peak. The preceding story, “Catherine and Henry”, tells of a relationship from both points of view, but it is ponderous and at times over-written, failing to engage any of the reader's sympathies. Yet, when Nadler gives the reader a reason to feel optimism, his writing seems to shine, as if that's where his own feelings really lie. The more downbeat stories are less convincing, but the closing pair of “Visiting”, with its estranged father and son road trip, and “Beyond Any Blessing”, which reflects on a dysfunctional grandfather-son relationship, have a subtly uplifting emotive power which suggests that, once Nadler settles on his own true voice, he will be a writer to reckon with.
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