Reviewed by Bob Williams
by Ben Ehrenreich
2006, ISBN 978-0-15-603183-7, $14.00, 293 pages
Ben Ehrenreich, who lives in Los Angeles, has had his works published in a number of publications. This is his first book.
It opens with a last chapter. It describes the dead bodies of a number of men and women with whom we will become acquainted later. Thus Ehrenreich destroys at a stroke the element of suspense.
Penny and Payne, both marked by and for life as losers, become lovers. They vanish from a society which is both like and unlike ours into a wilderness where Payne builds a house for Penny. She is indifferent to it and to Payne’s sudden acquisitive urges. As the story progresses, with explosive expansiveness, we find that the couple is watched by a crowd of society’s strays, about two dozen misfits and dropouts. Payne surprises them, mesmerizes them with the force of his personality, enslaves them and exploits them. They build the palace that he wants, a great hall for the entertainment of royalty and celebrities. He leads them into battle against defenseless civilians. But he fails when he tries to lead them into a vague war of which he and his forces would be a small contingent pitted against an unknown foe for an unknown length of time in an unknown place. He leaves with one attendant and the crowd of his former followers cluster about the abandoned and pregnant Penny. Payne does not return for years and all Penny learns of him is what she hears from stray rumors and chance visitors. She is lonely and bitter and disgusted with herself for having any feelings left for the man that abandoned her and Bobby her child.
This is the story of Penelope and Odysseus retold in modern terms. The original Odysseus bore a name that meant ‘angry.’ Payne is – as ‘pain’ – sufficiently similar. Ehrenreich goes beyond the original myth to incorporate the motif of the builder of cities. In this he recalls Finnegans Wake with its gigantic hero (but with the advantage of clarity).
A stranger appears, washed up on the shore and near death. He has forgotten his identity. Penny and the group take him in although the group has misgivings about him. At first it appears that he might be Payne returned but it is not so. One of the troop of hangers-on gives him the nickname Miss. Frustrated by his nearness to Penny, he leaves the community and goes to live in the motel where Penny and Payne once lived. It is now abandoned and decaying. Penny finds him there and she surrenders to him. In doing so, she drops her defenses with the group and they begin to demand that she choose one of them. In flashes of alternative narratives, we catch glimpses of Payne as he struggles to return home and of his son Bobby who searches for him in a borrowed boat.
Both Payne and Bobby return to their homeland. Miss, who is Theoclymenus of the original, sees their return in a vision. He leaves the motel, whether to leave the scene or to return to the palace to be slaughtered by Payne is left untold.
This is an amazing and a gripping novel told with virtuosity. His ability to retell that earliest of books is a splendor that constitutes an act of magic seldom matched in the literature of our time. You will do yourself an injury to miss this book.
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places