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Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions

Drew Ervin has been a friend of mine (online - we haven't met in person) for several years now. I greatly enjoyed his earliest published stories, "Diz Lives" and "Phanatic", both of which were wickedly funny, and his contribution to the Chicago Noir anthology, which brought classic-literature overtones to the crime genre. But none of these stories prepared me for the serious and stately prose of his debut novel, Extraordinary Renditions.

The novel (or, technically, three novellas) tells the story of three Americans in Budapest - the celebrated but aging composer Harkályi, the African-American soldier Brutus and the aspiring violinist Melanie. Harkályi's story is the most touching, as he returns to his native Budapest for the first time since WWII (he's a concentration camp survivor) for the public performance of an opera which he sees as the crowning achievement of his long career. His journey is one of redemption and coming to terms with his past, as he honors his vanished family by including a cherished folk melody in the opera's finale, and also wandering the streets of the city before the concert, remembering and reflecting on all that has come to pass. In the book's soaring third section he also connects with Melanie, who plays in the orchestra which is performing the opera but struggles to find purpose to her life. Their lives ultimately come together, and at the book's finale it is clear that a promising mentor-student relationship is about to develop, with Harkályi able to pass along his knowledge while Melanie finally finds direction.

But while Harkályi and Melanie come together, for me Brutus never really connected with the narrative. While his story is interesting and often thrilling, the visceral quality of his story didn't seem to fit with the thoughtful contemplation of the other two sections. Brutus also has only a brief, incidental brush with Harkályi and no contact with Melanie at all. I would have preferred to see the Harkályi and Melanie sections developed more deeply into a single narrative, with the Brutus passages excluded. But that's just a matter of personal preference, and only slightly diminishes my admiration for Ervin's book. He has crafted a thoughtful reflection on art and creativity, on pasts and futures, and I am greatly anticipating reading much more of his work in the years ahead.

December 7, 2010 in Books | Permalink


This novel sounds a lot like Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos.

Posted by: Paul Lamb at Dec 9, 2010 5:29:29 AM