Page 2


A Character’s ‘Nobility and Passivity’ By David Theis AFTER PHILLIP LOPATE, one of the first members of the University of Houston’s creative writing program, wrote his third short story about his sad, refined rug merchant, Cyrus Irani, he realized “there was something gripping me about this character.” Lopate is no romantic about the art of writing, and says now “This had never happened to me. I had never believed fiction could take over a writer. It seemed a lot of malarkey.” Lopate considered writing a series of short stories about this new presence in his life, then “I beat myself up and said come on, Why don’t you write a novel?” Lopate was intrigued by his creation for a number of reasons. “He had both nobility and passivity. Inside me there’s a deep passivity I’ve never allowed to take over, so for me this Cyrus was the road not taken. Also, I’ve always been intrigued by a certain type of Middle Eastern man. They have good manners, worldliness, delicacy, and sadness. I decided to write a novel about David Theis is a Houston freelance writer. someone who had better manners than I did.” Since The Rug Merchant basically hinges on Cyrus’s non-reaction to a rent increase, Lopate faced the technical challenge of writing “a novel of character, in which the character was repressed and inert, and yet make the book entertaining.” He did so by “animating the background a great deal, and by finding pleasure in the little comedies of everyday life.” Lopate also strove to maintain his own interest in the novel during the three and a half years he worked on it by making constant leaps of the imagination from the world he knew, Manhattan and Columbia graduate school, to a world that, at least on the surface, was completely alien, Zoroastrianism. He knew he “didn’t want to write an American Jewish novel,” and when Houston friend and fellow novelist Bapsi Sidhwa introduced him to the world of Zoroastrian culture and belief, he realized “God was putting this material in my hands.” The Zororastrian connection was doubly useful, because he found it sufficiently foreign to be interesting, yet close enough to his own Judaism to be intelligible. “They are BOOKS AND THE CULTURE EVERY ONCE in a while a new book comes along, so perfect jn its parts, so balanced in its whole, so well conceived and executed, that even the most careful reader is seduced into putting aside his critical tools and simply applauding the author’s achievement. Phillip Lopate’s new novel is such a book. The Rug Merchant, Lopate’s second novel and seventh book, tells the story of Cyrus Irani, the middle-aged proprietor of a rug store on Manhanttan’s Upper West Side. Irani is a gentle and introspective man, raised as a Zoroastrian, who struggles to reconcile his faith with his doubts, his economic failure with his family’s expectations of success, and his bachelorhood with his religious community’s belief in the importance of marriage. Along the way, Lopate perfectly captures and portrays Irani’s Zoroastrian milieu in Queens, the aficionado’s fascination with finely wrought Middle Eastern rugs, the rapid pace of life in New York City, and the debilitating alienation of urban loneliness and isolation. In telling Irani’s story, Lopate uses only the simplest of things a lonely man ; a few exotic rugs, a smattering of Zoroastrian scripture and ritual, a harping mother and a carping brother, a little New York street color, enough sex to titillate, and the notice, from Irani’s landlord, of a huge rent increase. Much of the book’s action results from Irani’s reaction to that rent notice. The merchant, long content to fuss and muse among his rugs, must now act if he hopes to save his shop. Irani’s entire life is thrown into confusion when he receives the notice from his landlord, and he begins to question the meaning of his existence. His problem is that he is subject to the inertia of long years of introspective inaction, and he hardly knows where or how to begin. He tries to borrow money Gary Pomerantz, a regular Observer contributor, is a freelance writer living in Houston. from his family. He tries to sell his private and precious collection of fine THE RUG MERCHANT By Phillip Lopate New York: Viking, 1987 218 pages, $16.95 rugs. He tries to put some zip in his life by visiting a sex club. He tries to put some genuine romantic emotion in his life by focusing his attention on a suitable Zoroastrian virgin. And he tries to embrace again the mystery, myth, and ritual of his childhood religion. All in vain. By the end of the novel it looks like Irani will succeed in the difficult enterprise of life only by becoming spiritually self-reliant. If the merchant’s shoe pinches, Lopate seems to say, if the orthodox Zoroastrian shoe hurts, then Irani must try another pair, then another and still another, until he has tried them all, or until either death or satisfaction overtakes him. The novel is full of warmth, humor, humanity and supense, too; a surprise twist in the plot at the end, which I won’t reveal, quickens the book’s pace, and turns the novel into a real page-turner. The suspense in this novel is .remarkable considering that much of Irani’s story is told in the form of interior monologue, a difficult narrative device with which to hold a reader’s attention for long. It is astonishing to see how much wrenching action Lopate is able to wring from a book built largely of the thoughts A Lonely Man and His Rugs By . Gary Pomerantz 18 MARCH 20, 1987