THE ELECTRIC MICHELANGELO
By Sarah Hall
Harper Perennial. 340 pp. $13.95
We all have secret tests we apply to books. For me, it's the Flying Wallendas Test, and it only applies to the most dazzling and dangerous prose. Most works of fiction are pleasant, thoughtful, informative, edifying or sometimes just plain awful, but reading some novels is like watching those daredevil acrobats: Can they do it? Can they make it all the way across the tightrope doing what they're doing? Pete Dexter did it in "Paris Trout," one of the absolutely finest American novels. Augusten Burroughs did it in a different way in "Running With Scissors." It happens whenever a novel leaves us in pure terror that the writer -- in tights and sequins and with no safety net -- won't be able to complete the incredible task he's set for himself, and you're filled with profound relief when you turn that last page and he steps off the rope and takes a bow.
Sarah Hall, author of "The Electric Michelangelo" (a Man Booker Prize finalist), steps right out on that dazzling wire. She has nothing to do with established writers of dignity and wisdom like Philip Roth or Gail Godwin, or with the all-too-predictable avant-garde. She's out to do something different, and for the first hundred pages or so it's blindingly swell, like Stendhal describing the Battle of Waterloo, or Jack Kerouac's description of parking cars in a crowded lot or T.E. Lawrence when he cuts loose and sends thousands of noble Arabs roaring across unknown desert sands. It's amazing work.
The novel opens during World War I in Morecambe Bay, a crummy but inviting little English seaside resort that has nothing much to recommend it but air -- soft air, they call it -- that's become the vacation spot of choice for working-class consumptives. The place has all the accouterments of a modest beach town: a pier and a promenade for strolling and some scary patches of quicksand. And it has taffy and sweet drinks and the wonderfulness of the sea itself.
Young Cy Parks, whose father has been lost these many years on a fishing vessel sunk in a dreadful storm, lives with Reeda, his hardworking, hotel-keeping mother, who doesn't hesitate to take in the worst consumptive cases, feeding them on potted shrimp so delicious that King George himself is rumored to order up large quantities. But caring for TB patients takes an enormous amount of work and a very strong stomach: It falls to Cy to collect containers of phlegm, sputum and blood that their tenants produce in heroic efforts to keep breathing. When he recoils from the hourly task, his mother chides him for being coldhearted: We must all serve each other, she tells him. We are all human and must honor that in every respect. And one day, as he's carrying his noxious pail, instead of looking away, he looks down into it and sees part of what actually makes up the human body. It's beautiful, this strange set of liquids, and if he can get his mind around it, may yield up some of the secrets of the world. Our bodies are made up of different gooey bits. To pretend otherwise is to be lost to delusion.
The town of Morecambe Bay becomes a magic place when he begins to really look at it. His mother performs illicit procedures on furtive women. More mystery. The pier burns down one night and as it does, gleaming snow starts to fall. The aurora borealis shows up another night. Magic! And yet most of the people Cy knows choose to live ordinary lives. A strange decision, when there is literal quicksand and sudden death all around.
Even this shady town has shadier parts to it: a red-light district, of course, and a set of parlors where men will etch pictures on your skin, yanking part of your life story away from your private soul and putting it out for all (or some) to see. These tattoo vendors -- half-artist, half-outlaw -- enable the inarticulate, the untalented to become works of art themselves.
As Cy approaches the end of his regular education and his mother's body begins to rebel in terrifying ways, the boy is befriended (or shanghaied) by Riley, the best tattooist in town. He is at once a strict father figure, marvelous craftsman, tormented artist and tiresome drunk. Cy becomes his apprentice: He will tattoo not just for his living but for his life. He will learn about the secrets of the soul just as he has learned the secrets of the body. Then after several calamities strike, Cy takes his tattoo equipment and crosses the Atlantic to Coney Island, which is like his home town but a thousand times more so.
At this point, for me at least, the author falls off the tightrope. The novel loses most of its exquisite dialogue and daring set pieces, although a couple of bartending Siamese twins and a murdered elephant make appearances. "The Electric Michelangelo" becomes a very beautiful, conventional discourse on the nature of art and the body, with some gothic violence thrown in. But when Reeda and Riley leave the narrative, they take the blinding dazzle with them. And the Flying Wallendas Test, which even the magical Dexter himself doesn't always pass, must be shelved for a while.
For now, it's enough to be consoled by a terrific and original novel by a splendid new writer, Sarah Hall.
Sunday in Book World
* Gabriel Garcia Marquez remembers melancholy whores.
* Jimmy Carter flays the Christian right.
* Theodore Roosevelt embarks on an excellent adventure.
* Doris Kearns Goodwin dramatizes Abraham Lincoln's contentious Cabinet.
* Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon brace for the next attack.