By Patrick McGrath. Knopf. 242 pp. $24
During a pleasure hop through Central America several years ago, my wife and I stumbled into an aging Victorian hotel at Puerto Barrios, a once-upon-a-time lively shipping town on the eastern coast of Guatemala. The once-regal inn's weathered wooden planks had been covered by thick dabs of canary-yellow paint -- an aging grande dame buried under a stiff pat of makeup. Its restaurant and bar were empty, as were most of the rooms. One of them was regularly rented, however, to an obscure American writer who had put down roots on the top floor, where he pounded out sentences on an old black Royal and was tended to by young, cafe-con-leche-skinned staff women in white canvas uniforms.
The juxtaposition of a lone American writer, an empty room and a seemingly forgotten if exotic place struck me as both vaguely poignant and hopelessly trite. What was he doing there? And whose vision of artistry was he derivatively living? Hemingway's? Melville's?
The memory of him and the hotel churned up often as I turned the pages of Port Mungo, Patrick McGrath's novel about Jack Rathbone, an English artist who smears paint on canvases in an imaginary, Caribbean-coastal town in Honduras, and the demons -- for the most part, the usual suspects: a troubled relationship, alcoholism, boredom -- that keep him company. Painter Jack's life is spent making art in a ramshackle former banana warehouse on the edge of a river, a physical and existential entanglement of islands, crocodiles, violent weather and mangrove swamps. He spends much of his time wondering where his free-spirited, rash wife, Vera Savage (McGrath obviously thinks there is much in a name), has run off to, leaving him to take care of their young daughter while he suffers from Vera's loss and for his art. Frequently, he hangs out at a down-at-the-heels, once-grand hotel bar with Port Mungo's "prickly community" of "gringos who'd stayed on after the banana boat pulled out." Through much of Port Mungo, McGrath does little more than navigate the shoals of cliche.
Told by Jack's adoring sister, Gin, the novel veers between her memories of Jack as a brilliant, often reckless spirit during their childhood in their native England and the duo's time together in New York, where they both end up, in their waning years, living off of Gin's considerable inheritance from their father, who favored her at the expense of Jack and another brother.
In between are tales of Jack's nature-boy-grown-up life in Port Mungo, where he makes a minor name in the world of art by turning violent colors and thick washes of paint into something called "tropicalism." He's a kind of modern-day Gauguin. Jack's primal energy has always held Gin in awe, including the time when, as a teenager, she found their tutor, Helen Splendour, and Jack, his "huge" member evident, playing in the library. She's awed again when Peg, Jack and Vera's wild-in-the-streets daughter, comes home with a thorn in her filthy foot and Jack rips it out with his teeth, then cleans the wound with an expertly applied spray of his urine. Because Jack is always on a pedestal for her, Gin's reliability as a narrator is severely compromised, as we later learn.
The plot's driving force is the mystery -- or "secret," as Gin repeatedly suggests -- surrounding the death of Peg at age 16, apparently after she is lost at sea during a boat ride with the typically drunken Vera. The death finally splits the barely-held-together relationship between husband and wife and eventually sends a despondent Jack to New York, where he works in a loft before moving in with Gin.
The book moves into its concluding phase early, then plods on for about 100 often-redundant pages (What? More roguish male artists? Another bout of artistic self-doubt? A Peg doppelganger? Do tell) before McGrath delivers what, with a more compelling setup, would have been a semi-shocking conclusion.
Throughout, the reader is confronted with a numbing litany of questions: Is McGrath saying that art requires madness to be vital? (He's said something similar in Asylum, his 1996 story of a sculptor institutionalized after murdering his lover.) That the desire to create also inspires madness? Or that an empty room, as he notes in Port Mungo's acknowledgments, is both an artist's refuge and exile, and that "what happens there to a great extent depends on the web of support we enjoy outside the room"?
But one could make a similar argument about software salesmen and bistro waitresses -- they need love and support too. Artists are humans no less under pressure than the workaday are, and hence no less or no more prone to rash, destructive acts. But perhaps the artist's calling demands a more self-critical professional examination based on uniqueness, depth and genuine provocation.
The shotgun marriage of melodramatic overkill and hackneyed "artistic" behavior in Port Mungo would fail that exam. McGrath's tortured-artist tale is more of a grotesque than his usual gothic. It's a novel that gives you just what you expect from your stereotypes -- and then some. *
Michael Anft is a journalist and critic who lives in Baltimore.