Message in a Bottle
Back from the dead, but no zombies, we promise

A brand-new hardcover called Tony and Susan by Austin Wright came into the store the other day, prominently plastered with a blurb by Saul Bellow: “Marvelously written—the last thing you would expect in a story of blood and revenge. Beautiful.” Not bad. Saul Bellow’s a Nobel laureate, a pretty big cheese … Wait a minute, Saul Bellow? Not to be impolite, but isn’t he, you know, dead? It turns out the novel was originally published seventeen years ago to great reviews, but never made a really big splash. Someone was paying attention, though, and wisely decided to give it another chance.

The novel starts when a manuscript is sent to Susan, a happily married teacher and mother, by her ex-husband, with whom she hasn’t been in contact for many years. She knew him as a struggling poet, so now that he’s successfully completed a book, he wants her to critique it as she did long ago. Surprisingly, the manuscript is a neatly-written thriller about Tony, whose family is abducted from their car while driving one night on a lonely highway. We read the story along with Susan, who intersperses her reflections about the writing, her former marriage, and her current life between the chapters. The two parts of the story move together even more smoothly than you could hope, commenting on and enriching each other. Tony and Susan provides all the satisfactions of a potboiler and of literature, which explains why the new cover features appreciative remarks from page-turning savants Nelson DeMille and Scott Turow alongside praise from alleged highbrows Ian McEwan and Sarah Waters. This is definitely one of the best books of the season; Susan devours her ex’s manuscript in three sittings, but I had to finish the whole book in two.

Reading it reminded me of another literary locust that recently rose up out of the dry soil after decades. It was a National Book Award winner in 1975, but languished thereafter and fell out of print. Thankfully, it’s available again in a new paperback release. A novel about a college professor writing a novel about a college student who wants to write a novel sounds like it’s going to be an airless trip down a hall of mirrors, but The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams is surprisingly vivid. It pulls off the trick of being two things at once, both an introspective, memoiresque piece of realist fiction in the vein of Richard Ford or Tobias Wolff and a more experimental novel that explores how life and memory are transformed into story. Stepping in and out of the nested narratives is disorienting only in the slightest degree; at each level the reader is guided by a craftsman’s hand. Thomas Williams is an incessant observer of action and psychology, and so are his various alter egos within the book. Reading the novel in 2011 adds yet another layer of interest. Set in 1970, it features characters looking back at and living through the period immediately following the second world war, and Williams’s long lens is even more powerful now with the added filter of the passing years. Some outdated attitudes, especially about gender, are on display, but that’s largely a function of how ready the narrators are to confront their own worst impulses. It’s what makes them feel as real as they do even while they’re reminding you of how fictional they are. This is not a book to tear through, but one that rewards a measured approach.

We can’t talk about valuable books being brought back to life without mentioning the work being done by NYRB Publishing. Their entire mission is to resuscitate lost classics, and the catalog of titles they’ve produced is almost staggering, from Booker Prize winners to children’s fables. It’s a list that never goes stale.

—James