SHADOW-BOX

By Antonia Logue

Grove. 308 pp. $24

Reviewed by Gary Krist

Iconoclasts are rarely known for their good manners. A hard day spent flouting convention and subverting bourgeois mores doesn't leave a lot of time for niceties like generosity, stable behavior or much of anything beyond a tireless and single-minded egotism. Self-styled artistic geniuses may do some of the necessary work of history, smashing ossified attitudes that shield culture-wide racism and sexism, but that doesn't make them any easier to live with -- in real life or in the pages of a novel.

Shadow-Box, Antonia Logue's ambitious but deeply flawed first book, recreates a time when iconoclasts were thick on the ground -- the first few decades of the 20th century, just as the previous era's conservatism was giving way to the revolutionary innovations of modernity. The book centers on three historical figures: Mina Loy, the modernist poet and proto-feminist; Arthur Cravan, an avant-garde French con man qua art critic; and Jack Johnson, the legendary boxer who became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. That three such wildly contrasting characters can coexist in the same novel is indicative of the era's (and the author's) bracing audacity. What they all share, however, is an irrepressible desire to abandon "the old strait-jackets in pursuit of a modernity and newness that was waiting to be crafted by whoever chose."

The bulk of Logue's complexly constructed novel takes the form of letters exchanged between Loy and Johnson in 1946, long after each has faded from the public eye. In Loy's letters, we learn of her early years as a painter in Paris, her flirtation with Italian Futurism in Tuscany, and her New York Dadaist days, when she abandoned her inconvenient children for several years to rub elbows with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams. Johnson, meanwhile, contributes recollections of his heyday as a boxer and social lightning rod, when his mere existence as a black champion (and high-living lover of white women) could set off riots on three continents. The common thread in their parallel narratives is the figure of Cravan, an elusive and charismatic man whose grand romance with Loy and turbulent friendship with Johnson managed to bring together these two unlikely correspondents. Cravan, who disappeared mysteriously just after his marriage to Loy in 1918, hovers in the background of their letters like a phantom, a near-mythic embodiment of modernism's reckless spirit.

In general, Logue does an admirable job of conveying the brash and unfocused energies of the prewar years in Europe and America, the somewhat chaotic structure of her novel mirroring the chaos of the times she's depicting. But while the book may be intriguing in concept, it stumbles badly in execution. Its most conspicuous problem is the voice of Jack Johnson, which is so far from credible that it constitutes an almost constant distraction in the book. Logue, born and raised in Ireland, seems to have little idea how a Texas-born black boxer might speak. Johnson's letters careen from an appropriate colloquialism ("You and him were something else together") to an odd, out-of-nowhere poeticism ("the hookers had found the riverside, claiming territory in the scrub like they were mapping out a new cartography of body arcs and curves"). Worse, this American boxer's letters are riddled with renegade Anglicisms; "I wouldn't have fancied those jails one bit" is an all-too-representative line. And while a few such mistakes would be excusable, patience dissolves after the hundredth time Johnson uses a word like "claret," "palaver," "on holiday," or "smart" (as a synonym for "stylish").

A more fundamental problem, however, is the static quality of the novel-in-letters structure as Logue has chosen to use it. One of the strengths of the epistolary form is its potential dynamism, each correspondent reacting to the other's revelations, coming to new self-knowledge through the give-and-take of a challenging interaction. But these letter-writers seem to be talking only to themselves. Their letters drone on obliviously, offering details in a mediated, reportorial style that doesn't allow for much character-defining dialogue. After a while, one begins to wonder how -- to take just one example -- the feminist Loy might really have responded to Johnson's offhand revelations of wife- and lover-beatings.

But Logue is so concerned with getting the biographical details down that she fails to give these people the acuity and feistiness they must have possessed in real life. In the end, both Loy and Jackson come off as solipsists -- selfish, irresponsible and a bit of a bore, despite their outwardly eventful lives. As a result, the great upheavals of early modernism, as narrated here, start to seem more like petulant adolescent rebellions than meaningful social revolutions, fueled mainly by the exercise of personal vanity.

Gary Krist is the author of two short-story collections and the novel "Bad Chemistry." His new novel, "Chaos Theory," will be published this winter.