Lucy Ives’s hilarious novel “Loudermilk or the Real Poet or the Origin of the World ” borrows its premise from Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” — and, according to Ives, Steve Martin’s 1987 rom-com “Roxanne.” But it’s much more than a retelling of the familiar tale in which a homely poet writes verse to be recited by a clueless hunk. It’s a farce about the struggle to make honest, unadulterated art in a market-driven world. Poetry, long thought to be the product of creative purity — and almost anti-capitalist in its unmarketability — becomes a tool for deception and self-promotion in Ives’s capable hands.
Our Cyrano is Harry Rego, a shy poet who is described by a fellow writer as “a kind of humanoid lemur or gentle bat-boy hybrid.” Harry is maladapted to nearly every social situation he finds himself in and often has to rely on his best friend, the charismatic Troy Loudermilk, to translate his grunts and stutters. Loudermilk is a student in the Seminars, an MFA program in the fictional no-man’s land of Crete, Iowa. (The program is not dissimilar from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which Ives attended.) Harry is along for the ride.
For Loudermilk, whose life is a clownish exercise in long-form improv, getting into an MFA program becomes an ambition. “Do you have any idea how many people are into this? Somebody could totally run this scene,” he tells Harry. The idea that Harry will write the poetry and Loudermilk will be the face of the poetry is born shortly thereafter.
What exactly Loudermilk is after — money? unfettered access to female undergrads? cultural capital? pulling one over on the poetry world? — is never fully addressed. But the story isn’t any less captivating as a result.
Never are high-minded questions of art and authenticity more expertly lampooned than in the person of Anton Beans, a hacky second-year poet in the Seminars. Beans, who develops an immediate, territorial dislike of both Loudermilk and Harry, is either the novel’s villain or its obnoxious antihero in his quest to foil Loudermilk’s scheme and expose Harry as the real poet. And while Beans’s intentions may seem noble, they are purely self-interested: He cannot bear the idea of another talentless poet getting more attention than he does. Unlike Loudermilk, Beans doesn’t know he’s talentless — but then he will never be exposed. Ives uses Beans to skewer the kind of self-serious, academy-bound male poet who only bothers to think of his female peers when he’s wondering who will review his next book.
“Loudermilk” is successful in getting readers to think about the origins of contemporary literature: The MFA program and the satellite communities that arise from it may be, after all, functional last bastions of literary ideas in the United States. But the novel falters when it tries to be about more than just Loudermilk’s deception. Clare Elwil, the creatively blocked daughter of a late minor poet, is a particularly opaque character whom Ives uses to introduce discussions of Jacques Lacan and Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du monde.” To make matters more difficult, the novel is interspersed with giant chunks of Clare’s fiction, all of which is far less interesting than Harry’s poetry. Ives, a poet as well as a novelist, is at her best when dramatizing Harry’s development as a poet, not Clare’s as a fiction writer. Ives leaves the reader to ponder whether Clare is on an upward trajectory or just a middling writer who, like Beans, has found herself a gimmick.
Still, “Loudermilk” is, overall, a riotous success. Equal parts campus novel, buddy comedy and meditation on art-making under late capitalism, the novel is a hugely funny portrait of an egomaniac and his nebbish best friend.
Rebekah Frumkin, author of the novel “The Comedown,” is a professor of English and creative writing at Southern Illinois University.
By Lucy Ives
Soft Skull. 304 pp. Paperback, $16.95