Muse: A Novel
“Muse adds still another gold star to Jonathan Galassi’s literary report card.”
After a slow start, this is a very accomplished first novel, maybe even better than the author intended.
He intended a roman-à-clef, and it is one, a tribute to the world of book publishing in which he came of age and made his mark. But it reads better as straightforward fiction than as a game of guess-who-this-fictional-character-really-was. The measure of a real novel, a serious one anyhow, is its ideas. (Not for nothing is the literary novel called the novel of ideas.) Thus, more interesting in Muse than the parlor game of Guess Who is the author’s neatly uncoiled Guess What: The times they are still a changing, and, no, you still can’t go home again.
There are hints here and there, chiefly in sometimes stilted attribution, that Muse might have been written at least once in the first-person point of view. No matter. Even from the arguably less sanguine third-person POV, it is the entertaining story of a phenomenal career in publishing—the author’s, in the thinly disguised persona of Paul Dukach, who grew up in New York State so far away from The City that his rust-belt hometown felt Midwestern by comparison and “seemed to survive on pure inertia.” We have all known such towns. Not even the proverbial Idea Whose Time Has Come would dare show up there, or so it seems to locals like our hero, “a boy who felt like an alien born into the wrong family.”
But towns like Hattersville never have and never will hold onto the likes of Paul Dukach, not in fiction or in real life. So when this novel actually gets rolling, belatedly at chapter two, the reader finds Dukach ensconced in Manhattan as editor-in-chief at a small but prestigious publishing company headed by the larger-than-life owner Homer Stern, “last of the independent ‘gentleman’ publishers.”
Absent from the firm’s pool of talented authors, however, is Ida Perkins, the superstar of poetry whom Homer covets, in more ways than one, and whom Dukach idolizes. Alas, Ms. Perkins seems irreversibly committed to the publishing firm of her second cousin and occasional bedmate, Sterling Wainright.
In a circuitous way, deep into the story, Dukach at last comes face to face with his aging and mysterious idol in Venice, where, in a masterful scene (that is neither the first nor the last such scene, by the way) she entrusts to his care her last manuscript. Nobody else even knows it exists. It represents nothing less than the publishing bonanza of a lifetime.
But the worship of and lusting after and pursuit of Ida Perkins is merely the novel’s storyline. Good as it is, the more affecting story in Muse is about the publishing era in which it unfolds: roughly the last half of the 20th century. In that era, the book, not the bottom line, was the focus. Publishers big and small were independent, many of them with colorful casts of very talented employees dedicated to the noble idea of creating The Book, if not on this go-round, then surely next time. In wistful words that sometime read like sadness set to music, Galassi captures all of this collaborative joy and heartache, and more, in a fond farewell to yesteryear—and a guarded hello to the digital age in publishing.
“Paul was enchanted by the lingo [of a New Age publishing friend and lover]: big data, scalability, pivoting, crowdsourcing, virtual convergence, geo-location, but before too long he came to understand that everything his guy was talking about —platforms and delivery systems and mini-books and nanotech and page rates . . . had very little to do with what mattered to Paul, which was the words themselves and the men and women who’d written them.”
Dukach’s devotion to “the words” is of course Galassi’s devotion, too, and that devotion has made Galassi the editor and publisher a legend in his own time, the spiritual successor to the fabled Maxwell Perkins of Scribner and Sons fame. Most readers who have even a nodding acquaintance with literature know also that Galassi is a highly regarded poet. Muse adds still another gold star to Jonathan Galassi’s literary report card. Here’s hoping his debut as a novelist won’t also be his swan song, digital anxiety or no.