As I was watching American Reunion recently, I was struck by the resemblance between that broad farce about thirtysomethings aching to recapture their glory days and the new Latin-studded, ultra-erudite novel from Burlington’s Marc Estrin.
That’s a slight exaggeration. But at the core of this far more ambitious artwork (a label that probably shouldn’t be applied to anything American Pie related) is the same theme: Aging man chasing youth. Generally in the form of a female decades his junior.
The protagonist of When the Gods Come Home to Roost, Estrin’s ninth novel, is a Berkeley classics professor named George Helmstetter. But his prototype is Faust, the 16th-century academic who, according to literature and lore, made a pact with the devil to regain his youth.
At 64, Estrin’s George has a gorgeous Greek girlfriend in her thirties, yet he finds himself sneaking glances at her teenage daughter. Worse, he’s starting to notice his age. When George is dumped, he faces the terrifying prospect of dating a woman only 14 years his junior.
Thank all the Greek gods that Mephistopheles happens along to rescue our hero from this fate. Because George inhabits the 21st century, Mephisto is a plastic surgeon with radical ideas about rejuvenation. Because this is an Estrin novel, he is named T.J. Eckleburg, after the painted image whose gigantic eyes coldly observe the characters of The Great Gatsby.
This Dr. Eckleburg, however, is no dispassionate judge — rather, he’s an overweening Gatsby himself. And he believes surgeons should give patients the transformations they seek, even if the results are Frankensteinian. “Why shouldn’t we use human powers to explore our human fantasies?” Eckleburg asks a nervous George. “What’s so good about normal?”
Estrin notes in his afterword that Eckleburg was inspired by a 2001 Harper’s Magazine article about Dr. Joseph Rosen, a plastic surgeon at Dartmouth Medical School who’s spoken of (literally) giving patients wings.
That’s fascinating material, fodder for decades of debate. Here’s the problem with Gods: Those issues don’t crystallize — indeed, they barely appear — until George makes his pact with the surgeon at roughly the 180-page mark. And they remain unresolved at the novel’s close, though by then George has done things in the name of his self-fulfillment that could be called downright abhorrent.
Like Goethe, whose Faust is full of satirical detours, Estrin almost seems to have become bored with his plot. But, unlike Goethe, he stretches the preamble to that plot — the rambling soliloquies of blowhard Faust before Mephisto pops up — to ungodly lengths. In Part one, each chapter is followed by an “Intercalarius” (“inserted calendar month,” in Latin) that veers off into a detailed etymology or a musical analysis or a series of emails between characters or an extended allusion.
A few of these tangents advance the plot or deepen its implications, but far too many read like mini-essays on subjects that interested Estrin. Some are brilliant and worthy of anthologizing; still, they slow the novel’s flow. Whenever we are jolted back to the main plot, we’re surprised to be reminded that George — the intellect behind most of these digressions — is about as mature as the American Reunion characters. When rejuvenated George snipes about the stupidity of the high schoolers he hopes to hook up with, he comes off not like a learned professor in a 17-year-old’s body but like a pompous college kid pulling rank on his peers because he can quote Nietzsche.
Estrin is a master of words prone to postmodern digressiveness. But in his best works, such as Golem Song, he maintains focus and brings his conflicts to resolution. Gods feels more like a series of sketches than a finished novel. And that’s unfortunate, because, in an age when face transplants and other radical bodily transformations are within reach, this Faustian story is worth telling.
"When the Gods Come Home to Roost" by Marc Estrin, Spuyten Duyvil, 334 pages. $18.
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