Martin hits a slam dunk with this wry and thoughtful novel set in the Manhattan theatre world of the 1970's where much of the story is framed around the illusions and theatrical aspirations of its three main characters, Edward Day, his arch nemesis the dashing Guy Margate and the beautiful but brittle Madeleine Delavergne whose mysterious ascendancy to the boards of off-Broadway is ultimately poignant and tragic. Like the stuff of Shakespeare, the novel begins with a tragedy when Edward's mother and her girlfriend Helen commit suicide together in their Brooklyn apartment, the act a catalyst for Edward as he finds solace in his acting classes. A remedy from unbearable sorrow and guilt, Edward plunges into his new craft, searching for a visceral way to give an audience everything they need to know about suffering, overwhelmingly drawing on his personal tragedy. It is here in New York as Edward endures the frustration of auditions and the anxious wait for call-back sessions that he meets his first great love, the beautiful and completely fearless Madeleine who makes him laugh and is "evidently available." Edward is rhapsodic. And even as he befriends the curly-headed Teddy and his friend Mindy, partaking in late night swimming and smoking pot, his affair with Madeleine is cemented amid the sighs and cries muffled by the steady rumbling of the tide. Typical of his tribe, Edward is plagued with self-important narcissism, his young life characterized by a type of self congratulatory grandeur. It's not surprising then, the desire for Madeline loses its edge and a comfortable familiar smugness appears to take its place.
Intent to practice his Brando - "the wolf on the prowl in search of a mate," the relationship between the tortuously ambitious Edward and the equally ruthless Guy forms the core of this story, when Guy rescues Edward from certain death after almost drowning off the waters of the Jersey Shore. Edward is just about to give into his fate when Guy thuds into the darkness, his arms lifting him and dragging him back into the world: "Sick, weak and grateful to be alive." Guy is the rescuer who saved Edward's life, so how can Edward repay him? Almost at once the metaphorical stage is set for what becomes a battle of wits, wills and of the best roles as both young men battle it out, using the poor, brittle Madeline as a type of ruse. Pretty early on Guy's dark eyes fixate on Madeleine with a sinister distant interest and Edward quickly realizes there's' something unnerving and menacing about him, his demeanor almost like Christopher Walken's "death's-head grin" Both men look a lot alike - a type in a casting call: " the handsome white guys." There's Guy with his "long canines and wolfish grin," and Edward with his piercing eyes who can stop audiences in their tracks.
When Guy finds himself in financial straights, he automatically looks to Edward to help him out, after all this is the chronic condition of the actor. Consequently, Edward is torn between feeling grateful to Guy for saving his life, but what he feels is not gratitude, Edward mostly feels wary of Guy and just like the actor, he's prepared to present him with a reasonable facsimile of the proper emotion. With theatrical aspirations of her own, Madeleine is inspired by both Edward and Guy and their endeavors, but she's brittle and easily led, and also in her own way quite narcissistic and self-absorbed. She lets herself be pulled into the brutal orbit of Edward and Guy, but then is overjoyed at Guy's brief rise in popularly, his success, heralding the realization that that there's nothing going on underneath- "he's just a big stupid naked self-absorbed, unfeeling ape." Ultimately a decade long feud takes place with Guy attacking Edward on three emotional fronts: his feelings for Madeleine, his personal sense of obligation to him for saving his life, and Edward's insecurity as an actor. All the while Martin speculates what means to be an actor. A narcissistic and superstitious tribe, her characters are perhaps fairly representative - always looking for luck and a glimpse of the future, fearing success and embracing failure, desiring that which is dangerous or forbidden and might cause us to suffer while also strive to be independent, longing at the same time to surrender to a burning passion.
From the seedy, ramshackle apartments, the frustration of failed auditions, the relative merits of acting teachers and schools, the catch-22 of Actors' Equity, the anxieties, perils and hilarious adventures of those who have to appear nude onstage, along with the tiny theatres in the West Village, full of plays that were new and forgettable - the novel is a veritable smorgasbord of atmosphere and brightly lit drama. The author offers up the tantalizing symbolism of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya for the final denouement, the role Edward's big break but where a suicide causes Madeleine to slowly unravel on stage, her mind slipping around the edges. Of course, the slow simmering of Guy's mendacity brings Edward to see red as he watches his arch nemesis turn into an egocentric Machiavellian devil incapable of seeing himself as anything but wronged. Mike Leonard August 09.