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Sunday, January 25, 2009

THE SKY BELOW

By Stacey D'Erasmo

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 271 pp. $24

Most novels about young people who head to the big city to become artists could be called "Lost Illusions." If Stacey D'Erasmo's The Sky Below is an exception, it's because her young man, Gabriel, has almost nothing left to lose except his illusions. He is a walking piece of scar tissue continually rubbing against the hardest contingencies.

The litany of losses starts early when Gabe's father quits his family, leaving them in a dilapidated house in Massachusetts. Gabe starts selling sex in a public men's room and robbing homes in the neighborhood. "When I looked at myself in other people's mirrors," he tells us, "the world was my diorama." These are his first artistic stirrings, and they are tellingly parasitic. Later, in college in Arizona, Gabe devotes himself to constructing Joseph Cornell-style dioramas. Boxes -- in various sizes -- become one of the more tedious running metaphors in this book.

The problem with The Sky Below is that by having Gabe come to terms with his limitations, D'Erasmo has limited his voice. His groping attempts at introspection feel penetratingly real -- and testify to D'Erasmo's intelligence -- but this authenticity exacts a high price on the prose. "I had become a box with nothing inside," Gabe tells us, and the consummate banality of the line is meant to resonate.

But Gabe's frustrated rage for order keeps us reading. He moves to Manhattan, where he helps edit the obituary pages for a downtown rag. After the World Trade Center is destroyed, Gabe coldly muses about a T-Shirt tag: "The towers fell and all I got was this lousy job." He ghostwrites an aging teen novelist's lucrative series. He obsesses over buying a dilapidated house of his own in Brooklyn Heights, and his boxes keep coming as if off an assembly line.

Gabe ventures to Mexico after learning he has contracted a possibly fatal blood disease. Ostensibly, he's in search of his father, with whom he hopes to commune using a talismanic radio. But he winds up living in a hippie compound and, in a startlingly surreal moment, discovers a small egg in his abscessed loins.

The Sky Below is more moving when D'Erasmo explores less magical happenings. Gabe is such a husk of a man that the strangers he services in a bus station bathroom are among his most cherished memories. More enduring comfort comes from his older Hungarian boyfriend. In Mexico, he gets laid -- and nearly crushed -- by a fat black woman named Malcolm X at the bottom of a freshly dug latrine.

D'Erasmo has tapped into the literary patron saint of promiscuity -- Ovid himself -- for her classical allusions. Gabe was read The Metamorphoses as a child and wonders if, like one of Ovid's star-crossed lovers, he has stumbled "into the wrong grove." These flourishes remind us we're reading a novel painfully aware of its plain prose. D'Erasmo gradually endows Gabe with a kind of stoical grace. Once a plaything of the Fates, he ends up as their employee, working on a New York Public Library database that compiles the photos of every deceased person in the city. He is now in cahoots with death -- the greatest organizing principle of all.

-- Thomas Meaney, who also reviews for the Wall Street Journal and Bookforum.


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