"The Confessions of Edward Day"
By Valerie Martin< br />Vintage, $15.95, 304 pages
"Let the Great World Spin"
By Colum McCann
Random House, $15, 400 pages
Cities have served as one of the great subjects of fiction from Balzac to Dickens to Saul Bellow, and a lot of important writers in between.
Novelist Valerie Martin is one of the most skilled and versatile writers working today. She's written beautifully about, among other subjects, bad times in New Orleans, plantation life in Louisiana, and told the story of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of the doctor's house maid. In her new book, "The Confessions of Edward Day," Martin goes City, recreating the life of a struggling young actor and his cohort in the New York of the 1970s.
There's no summarizing the plot of a Chekhov play, asserts Edward Day, the narrator of this faux-memoir about one man's life in the theater and his battles with illusion and reality - the great theme of western theater ever since it began in Greece thousands of years ago. But Day can clearly track for us the trajectory of his own career, and eventually see some glimmers of the truth it reveals. On a summer beach outing in New Jersey early in his acting days and fresh from the bed of a beautiful young actress, he falls from a pier into a raging ocean rip current, only to be rescued by a fellow actor. This rescue turns out to be a mixed blessing over the years. Guy Margate, the moody and ferociously untalented actor who's Day's savior, runs off with his girl, a gifted actress named Madeleine, and turns up to mark every contour and turn of Day's acting life. Madeleine, the girl, seems always just about to fall apart. Margate, Day's ambiguous savior, is a mess, a mass of conflicting torrents of feeling. "I'm an actor," Day tells us. "I don't get caught out by my emotions;" But the way he tells his story of love, affection, art, and its mirror image life makes for a really engaging and deeply emotional novel, carrying us from auditions to various stages on and off-Broadway, and into the final stages when a blossoming blooming career begins to turn rank. The actors in this novel may sometimes wander about in a fog of illusions, wondering who they really are. But Valerie Martin's success in creating them is real, in a real city.
Irish-born novelist Colum McCann looks at his adopted American city through a much wider lens. Though his new book "Let the Great World Spin" offers no less than an intense vision of New York. It's August 1974, and a French tightrope walker has strung cables between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He's just stepped out to begin his epic walk. In the streets below, from downtown to the South Bronx, the city dwellers walk their own tightropes. There are whores, priests, drug addicts, judges, bereft mothers and glorious children. The novelist himself takes numerous chances in these pages, opening wide his arms to embrace the high and low, ordinary speech and lyrical passages that come as close to Blarney as an Irish writer can get when he focuses on America.
"He entered the noise of the city," McCann writes of his high-wire walker, "the concrete and glass made a racket, the thrup of the traffic. The pedestrians moving like water around him. He felt like an ancient immigrant. He had stepped onto new shores." Readers will feel a similar sensation emanating from these pages.