The Book of Flying, by Keith Miller. Riverhead Books. 272 Pages. $23.95.
In this original compendium of tales, a pale librarian and poet named Pico, in a city by the sea, falls in love with a beautiful winged girl named Sisi. To be one with her, he must grow wings, and so he sets forth on the journey that is this book to the "Morning City." Picaresque in structure, rejecting realism as an unnecessary encumbrance, The Book Of Flying is an extraordinary debut novel.
Each tale is in search of what is good and sustaining in human existence: roast duckling and peppercorn pate; the writing of poetry; the consolations of a steadfast companion; knowledge ("how can we live in a world we do not comprehend?"). In a glance at Alice In Wonderland, Master Rabbit appears in half-moon spectacles serving hot tea and rum and "milky porridge" to an exhausted Pico.
The very plenitude of stories flushes The Book of Flying with hope, even as Pico's adventures do not turn out well. He is seduced by a bandit queen; meets a minotaur; pities a woman whose beauty prevented her from valuing the love of a good man; and must fight a duel with a painter whose love for an acrobat is both possessive and fickle ("my eyes have moved on," he explains). Loss is inevitable and irrevocable. There are no second chances.
Yet the human spirit is infinite. Anyone can become anything. Pico learns to be a thief, and a chef, versed in the "vagaries of the egg yolk." No less, everything comes at a price. The dwarf who is his mentor has sold her looks to the devil in exchange for his recipes.
As he moves from forest to city to desert, Pico writes his poems. At the heart of this exquisite book is the romantic notion of the transcendence of art. Pico will not sell his poems because "it would be like selling a child." Art restores order to the chaos of the human tragedy.
"The world succumbs to my untruths so that they become truths," the painter Zarko says.
Books nourish, Miller insists, so that you are no longer hungry. You can drown in books, and "nothing equal[s] rereading a loved book." Narya, a whore writing an epic, knows she has "only one story to write, as do we all." Pico composes his poetry "to see my soul spread its wings, to hear my voice from beyond the boundaries of my skin."
In reflexive advice to writers, Miller suggests, "keep characters in propinquity long enough and a story will always develop a plot."
Pico believes it is love that drives him forward as he retains blind loyalty to the image of his heart's desire, the winged girl in the city by the sea. He turns out to be wrong. It is art that transforms. By the end, his being is "annihilated," and he forgets his own name "in the green meadows of the story he's desired all his life."
Libraries may burn. People may destroy themselves and each other. Love will be lost. The artist endures. "The last winged man" weeping into the sea becomes one with all the sorrow that has ever been and will be in this haunting, surprising book.
Joan Mellen teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. The latest of her 17 books, A Farewell to Justice, an account of Jim Garrison's investigation into the murder of President John F. Kennedy, will be published next fall. She has also written a novel.