By Sybil Steinberg
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
By Ira Sher
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 319 pp. $25
Even the first sentence of this intensely imagined novel is unnerving: "Did you ever have a friend?" asks narrator Milty Menger. Only a loner with minimal social skills would express himself in so plaintive a fashion. But that's not the half of it. Ira Sher develops Milty's personality in a plot that veers from richly suggestive psychological suspense into the realm of Southern Gothic.
Art gallery owner Milty is at a bad juncture in his life -- his wife has left him, he's plagued by nightmares -- when he gets a call for help from an old college friend. Charley Trembleman has suffered burns to his hands in a motel fire, and he needs Milty to fly from his home in New Jersey to Memphis, and then to drive Charles on his route as a regional salesman for the Singer Sewing Machine Co. Milty agrees, suffused with the need to achieve an intimacy he has always craved, but Charles's dislike of his accommodating friend is palpable, and his antipathy increases as the pair drives across the South. More alarming, fires keep breaking out at the seedy motels the two men pass through.
Meanwhile, the travelers, sewing shop owners and motel proprietors they encounter pontificate endlessly on existential questions. Though the tension rises through a series of surreal scenes -- a blackout in a cave where a terrified Milty is almost seduced, a sinister hunting expedition that veers into farce -- the reader begins to feel suffocated inside Milty's head. Milty is obtuse to the effects of his self-absorbed behavior, and worse, it's gradually revealed that he's capable of behaving brutally and without remorse. His whining need for sympathetic understanding threatens to overwhelm the dramatic momentum.
The novel is redeemed, however, by Sher's captivating, supple prose, gorgeous with metaphors ("The rain lay like a comb in the grass. . . . I saw smoke trickling up the bottom of the door: a waterfall run upside-down"). And as the story teasingly coils around the secrets in Milty's cold heart, the mysteries of friendship and betrayal remain largely unresolved, still burning in Milty's fevered brain.
Steinberg was a senior editor of Publishers Weekly.