Courtesy of Basic Books, Counterpoint. Design by Nicole Caputo.
There is something inexhaustible in Homer’s Odyssey that makes us want to go back to it, to the archetype of a hero’s going forth and arduous return, of bravery and cunning, and, finally, of the test of a wife’s fidelity. That story is all here in Ben Ehrenreich’s first novel, The Suitors, and, as they say, here with a vengeance. His is an incantatory retelling, whose lexicon is the dream set in a contemporary landscape, itself a little nightmare of toxic sludge and mall junk, of glue sniffers without a cause.
Payne and Penny, the novel’s version of Ulysses and Penelope, are teenage misfits in mad love, the kind we are all glad to have been done with and would kill to recapture. With the help of other teenage derelicts, whom Payne enthralls with his macho authority and Penny enchants with her macho beauty, a little fiefdom, complete with palace, is built. Payne leaves this little kingdom to fight in the wars for Freedom, leaving Penny waiting behind—for decades—with a court of lecherous and greedy sycophants lusting for her hand.
It is into this familiar narrative mold that Ehrenreich pours his fresh magic, sometimes with the charm of Raymond Queneau, sometimes with the grit and verve of Celine—both Americanized. I admire this book, its authority—minus any preening; its daring not to be safe—not to be another well-made boredom turned out from the trade schools. There is not a line of waste in the telling, not a tired verb, not a cliché of sentimentality in this novel tense with romance, not a sorry gap in the story as it drives at a pace at once leisurely and speeding, not one gimmick in its originality. This is truly a ravishing book.