By Richard Zimler
Delacorte Press, 499 pages, $24.95.
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In Richard Zimler’s latest novel, set in 19th-century Portugal, a young boy named John Zarcos Stewart begins suffering from terrifying hallucinations, images of the spirit of his dead friend, Daniel, who committed suicide. Daniel’s death was not the first tragedy John witnessed — another childhood friend had been raped and beaten, and Daniel’s grandmother was beaten in public for being a marrano, or secret Jew.
To allay his son’s toxic visions, John’s father, a wine seller, travels to Africa and returns with Midnight, a mystical Bushman healer with powers to exorcise the ghosts haunting John. Midnight succeeds, inexplicably, in freeing John of his demons, but when the African shaman disappears, John’s life slowly deteriorates, until he becomes determined to find his healer. He sets out on a quest, leading him through innumerable plot twists, set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal, and finally to antebellum America, where he assists in a slave rebellion.
The book spans 27 years and three continents, yet it reads more like a soap opera than an epic novel. Though Midnight’s poetic descriptions of the alternate world of spirits are colorful and evocative, the emotional exchanges between characters often come across as trite. But Zimler, who currently resides in Portugal, has a gift for recreating the superstitious, surreal Portugal of that era. Opium tinctures, leeches and a caged bird market are suggestive images that make readers feel as though they are walking through an open square bustling with the peculiar trappings of the 19th-century Iberian peninsula. And the book, which connects the experience of marranos and African-American slaves, ultimately becomes a mystery of larger proportions, posing questions about enslavement to demons real and imagined.
— RACHEL ZUCKERMAN
The Tattooed Girl
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco, 320 pages, $25.95.
Joyce Carol Oates’s latest novel, “The Tattooed Girl,” is dedicated to Philip Roth, and rightfully so. The protagonist, Joshua Siegl, is a brilliant, self-absorbed and decaying novelist whose occasional nemesis and companion, Alma Busch, seems directly plucked from “The Human Stain,” Roth’s brilliant take on the literary mystery. Yet while Oates’s work may resemble Roth’s at first glance, its overall quality pales in comparison.
The plot first begins to thicken, as they say, when the 38-year-old Joshua, who is suffering from a debilitating nerve disease, hires Alma, a near-illiterate vagabond, as his assistant. The young woman — who is decorated extensively in tattoos burned beneath her eye and on her hands by a mysterious group of abusive males — is, unbeknownst to Joshua, a raging antisemite who hates her boss. She even steals trinkets and other assorted items from Joshua, which she showers on her Jew-hating boyfriend.
At first, Oates uses Alma’s antisemitism as a vehicle to divine the source of antisemitism in the culture at large. The same predictable causes are rehashed — poverty, illiteracy and ignorance — all of which have plagued Alma’s life. Yet when Alma’s antisemitism inexplicably evaporates, so does Oates’s attempt at explaining it. The story becomes a meaningless melodrama.
In one scene, Joshua says that he believes the work that brought him success did so because it “forced the reader to imagine what the writer doesn’t reveal.” Oates’s ambition to achieve the same effect runs throughout this novel. But for her, what is meant to be elliptical is exposed as evasive.