ustxtxb_obs_2001_10_12_50_00018-00000_000.pdf

Page 18

by

BOOKS AND THE CULTURE The Truth Under the Table BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN The Deadwood Beetle By Myline Dressler BlueHen/Penguin Putnam 227 pages, $23.95. ut things in the saddle, and readers often come along for the ride. An effective way to get your pages turned is to start with the striking image of a material object and then trace its provenance and resonance through the lives of a novel’s characters. In Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World, a contemporary Massachusetts woman’s fascination with a precious diamond pilots the plot back to seventeenth-century India. The Grand Complication in Allen Kurzweil’s new novel of that name is an exquisite timepiece said to have been designed by master horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet for Marie Antoinette. And Susan Vreeland sets Girl in Hyacinth Blue in motion by pondering the pedigree of a painting attributed to Vermeer. A blurb”compelling and inventive”attributed to Vreeland graces the cover of The Deadwood Beetle, the second novel by Mylene Dressler. Her first, The Medusa Tree, shared a publisher, MacMurray & Beck, withVreeland’s popular book. Dressler’s latest work, produced by a new imprint, BlueHen Books, proceeds, like Girl in Hyacinth Blue, from the mystery surrounding a physical object once owned by Dutch Jews murdered in the Holocaust. But Dressler’s inventiveness with things Dutch is not entirely derivative. Though she has lived in Houston, where she teaches at the University of St.Thomas, since 1989, she was born in The Hague. At 264 acres, the University of Texas’s J. Frank Dobie Ranch is not quite the size of her native Holland, but it is where, as the Dobie Paisano Writing Fellow, Dressler will spend next spring working on her third novel. The Deadwood Beetle begins in an antiques shop in Manhattan. When Tristan Martens, a retired professor of entomology, wanders in one day, he is astonished to discover a sewing table that once belonged to his mother when the family lived in Rotterdam. He queries the owner of the shop, Cora Lowenstein, about the table, but she insists that, as an heirloom from her husband’s aunt, the item is not for sale. Determined to retrieve the table, whose underside still bears a sentence he inscribed as a child, Tristan schemes to overcome Cora’s resistance. He meets with her repeatedly, to coax her into parting with the piece, but, instead of helping him acquire the table, Tristan’s courtship of Cora merely makes him fall in love. Though a decade has passed since she left him, after 30 years, Tristan still misses Agnes, his former wife. She and their son Christopher have become evangelical Christians and now live in Houston. Christopher, a reformed junkie, assaults his infidel father with exhortations to come to Jesus and Texas. As far as Tristan is concerned, the only good thing about the Lone Star State is Dr. Michael De Bakey, who saved his life with triple bypass surgery. Now in his 70s, Tristan is a lonely scientist trying to contend with the exigencies of the heart. He is attracted to 54-year-old Cora not merely because she controls his late mother’s sewing table. Her elegance and poise seem so at odds with his own uncertainties, and with her twice-weekly visits to the White Oak LifeCare Center in Connecticut, where her comatose bus band, Sandor, a talented pianist reduced to a vegetative state by a botched operation, has been confined for more than two years. During the course of the novel, Dressler’s narrator divulges dramatic secrets about his European pasta father who collaborated with the Nazis and a mother whose thwarted romanticism found expression in the names she gave her two children: Tristan and Isolde. Seventy-three percent of Holland’s 140,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust, the highest percentage for any occupied country, and The Deadwood Beetle reverberates with questions of individual accountability, for the Nazi atrocities and, more generally, for the fate of other human beings. Tristan abandoned the Netherlands at 17, but despite his success at reinventing himself as an American academic, he is still the son of a war criminal. Does Tristan’s responsibility to Cora, a half-Jew, include the obligation to tell the truth? As with Henry James’s splintered golden bowl, the sewing table remains central to the proceedings, as plot device and controlling metaphor. Beneath the table, a childish hand has scrawled an inscription, twice, in Dutch: “Als de Joden weg zijn is bet onze beurt.” Cora provides an English translation \(“When the Jews are gone, she praises the statement for being “clear and honest,” she cannot resolve its ambiguity. As a sensible American, she interprets the assertion positively, as an affirmation, like John Donne’s “No man is an island,” of the universal stake that each of us has in the other. She in fact likens it to the legendary declaration by German clergyman Martin Niemoller, who was imprisoned forbelatedlyopposing his P 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 10/12101