Tonight, for all its magnificence, the city projected a claustrophobic attitude in which barren and cheerless buildings huddled for companionship, creaking across streets and alleys to confer with their neighbors. The sky had the brittle look of overripe fruit, all lumpy apples and oozing bananas, while the air felt more July than May, sodden and heavy, attacked by the aroma of uncollected refuse that overflowed its containers like some rain-swollen tropical river, and the faces of the homeless shone with brown light.Robert Freeman Wexler's 2009 novel, The Painting and the City, opens with one of the most vivid cityscape descriptions that I have read in some times. It is the summer of 2001 in New York City (yes, there is a significance for it being set then) and the city that never sleeps is broiling, both in heat and activity. Amidst this teeming activity a young sculptor, Jacob Lerner, goes through the motions of his everyday life. One thing that quickly becomes apparent in reading this novel is that Wexler imbues his characters with interesting perspectives and views on life without doing the literary version of holding a flashing sign in front of the characters which says, "THIS IS AN IMPORTANT THOUGHT THIS CHARACTER IS HAVING." Instead, even the oddest, most unusual conversations flow as naturally as two familiar, old friends having a 3 AM dorm conversation about life, the universe, and whether or not Danny Bonaducci could kick Donny Osmond's ass in a celebrity boxing match. Wexler manages to mix the mundane and the surreal so adroitly that the narrative moves seamlessly from the quotidian to the weird.
In summer, rancid haze clings to the buildings, a coating of torpor that drives out all who are able to leave, for a weekend, for a month, two months, all who own the means of leisure, while the rest take what ease they can, shunning the subways, avoiding the lifeless underground air weighted with the bones of past generations, whose inability to speak shackles the city, at its worst in the dead time of heavy summer. Breezes of shaved concrete crumble through the open windows of anyone unfortunate enough to lack air conditioning, and nightfall carries no release, as the trap laid by the day clamps down, vengeful and loathsome. (p. 7)
Lerner one day discovers a painting that the Dutch illustrator Philip Schuyler did of a biracial young woman. In this painting, there is a menace lurking behind this woman, which intrigues Lerner. As he investigates, he discovers the name of the woman, Madame Burgundy, and a manuscript that Schuyler had written about his time in New York City in the 1840s. This manuscript, reproduced within the pages of the text, reveals not only some of the mysteries behind Madame Burgundy and why she was painted in such a distressful situation, but that there was also a Dutch-American secret society that existed then which was still carrying on secretive commercial deals. Schuyler barely escaped his situation, but as Lerner investigates this historical mystery, he discovers that underneath the surface, there are still deep, dark, hidden currents that can be lethal to those who traverse their depths too far.
But The Painting and the City is much more than an update on a 19th century sensational novel. Over the course of its 268 pages, the city itself, historical and present alike, emerges as a quasi-character, with the setting firmly grounding the plot in such a fashion that the reader can feel immersed in the environs, and yet there are enough unsettling oddities that the city, just like Schuyler's painting of Madame Burgundy, feels a bit off-kilter, as if it were as much of a dreamscape than a solid cityscape. This sense of surrealism adds to the narrative, echoing what is occurring both in the "past" (Schuyler's manuscript) and the "present" of Lerner's discoveries. And despite this strangeness, Wexler's text never feels jarring or rushed in its moves from the mundane to the extraordinary; his narrative connects these disparate elements so tightly together that the so-called normal yields to the weird, which in turn returns again to the mundane. This flowing may seem easy when reading the text, but in the course of writing this short review, I have come to appreciate just how difficult it likely was for Wexler to balance these elements out to where the most surprising elements in hindsight felt so smooth and natural when in the midst of my initial read.
Lerner's character is much more nuanced than the bog standard "Everymanish character, mostly devoid of identifiable character traits, gets sucked into a strange mystery," where that bland characterization is meant to underscore the strangeness of the situation. Lerner's character is well-defined; his sense of alienation from his world is developed nicely through the use of short but effective internal monologue flashbacks. He is much more than some random schmuck that gets sucked into a mystery. His character is interesting because he is not a cipher but someone who takes an active role in uncovering this mystery. This character development is important not just from a plot perspective, but also from a thematic angle. Wexler explores issues of Art and Commerce in this novel and how Lerner and those who he meets over the course of this novel help further his explorations of those seemingly polar opposites. This element adds yet another layer of depth to a story whose plot alone was well-realized in its goals and execution.
There were very few faults I could find with The Painting and the City. Oh, perhaps I could note how I wish just a little bit more could have been said about this or that plot point or character, but that would only serve to underscore just how fascinating the city and the painting mystery truly were for me. Wexler's novel felt as though it were a briskly-paced story that had been stripped of any extraneous fat, leaving the reader with a story that moves at a falsely languid pace until s/he realizes just how quickly things have developed and how engrossed s/he is with what has transpired. If I had read this book last year, The Painting and the City certainly would have made my year-end Best Novels list. Highly recommended.