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Book Review

‘The Marriage Artist’ paints a dark tableau

Winer fuses an anti-love story, whodunit

By Jan Stuart
November 17, 2010

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The curtain rises on Andrew Winer’s dolorous “The Marriage Artist’’ as two lovers plummet to their demise on a Bowery sidewalk and lowers over the melancholic tableau of an anonymous mass burial on New York City’s Hart Island. The body count that accrues in the pages separating these enigmatic events is unfettered by the same kinds of question marks, but is no less disquieting for the absence of mystery: Most of the victims limned in these intervening chapters are European Jews ensnared in the death machinery of the Final Solution.

An artist and art essayist, Winer locates a jangling prose equivalent to abstract impressionism that reinvigorates the oft-recounted nightmare of Jewish ghetto-dwellers jammed into freight cars bound for concentration camps. Potent as this sequence is, “The Marriage Artist’’ positions itself outside the inexhaustible body of Holocaust fictions that endeavor to find coherency in the unfathomable by reimagining it anew.

Instead, the author burrows to the core of his own ethnic identity, wrestling with tough questions regarding Jewish assimilationism and self-loathing. When a character asks “What makes a man want to sever every tie he has to the people who matter the most?’’ her question cuts to the thematic bone of a novel that wants to make sense of Jews who jump ship (or train, as is the case in a breath-bating sequence redolent of “Sophie’s Choice’’) and reinvent themselves with pointedly un-Jewish narratives.

The result of Winer’s self-reflexive inquiry is Holocaust noir, a high-minded fusion of dark anti-love story and ethnographic detective fiction. Winer’s determined gumshoe (and presumable alter ego) is Daniel Lichtmann, an art critic ferreting out answers to the simultaneous deaths of his second wife, a Russian-Jewish photographer named Aleksandra, and her lover Benjamin Wind, a maverick Native American painter whose meteoric rise to glory was fueled in part by Daniel’s rhapsodic reviews.

Daniel’s investigation leads him through the disparate corridors of a Benedictine monastery, a hidden Viennese synagogue, and Riker’s Island prison, where he uncovers some startling links between his vaunted art hero and three poisonously conjoined figures from Nazi-era Vienna. This love-hate triangle consists of Josef Pick, a master painter of ketubahs (Jewish marriage contracts), Josef’s willful wife, Hannah, and his childhood friend Max, a resolute Zionist and sorrowfully closeted gay man who, in the book’s most elegantly wrought chapter, introduces the couple in a stratagem to spirit them out of harm’s way to Palestine.

As Daniel separates the intertwining strands of the trio’s histories, he locates a kindred spirit in the ill-fated Josef, whose gift for painting magnificent ketubahs is at odds with his unfitness for marriage. Unsettled unions go with the territory of savagely uprooted communities in “The Marriage Artist,’’ which foams over with malcontent Jewish couples and unhappy kinder who end up throwing out their cultural heritage along with the soiled bathwater of their broken families.

Winer rigorously confronts his own ambivalence toward Jews who effectively murder themselves by rejecting or falsifying their past. All too often, however, the author’s contempt for such characters trumps his empathy, and the intensity of his personal stake spills over into the purple (“I felt buckled to an airplane flying toward a country called Oblivion’’) and the lugubrious (“It is only he and his father now, locked in some spinning amusement park ride that his grandfather never took him to, twirling around each other’s need in a cage from which kindness is centrifugally flushed’’).

Despite the many rococo flights of fancy, neophyte art critics might find inspiration in Winer’s protagonist, whose writerly eloquence unleashes romantic yearnings between himself and Max’s comely assistant. She’s not Jewish, as it turns out, a development that may strike some readers as unsurprising as it is ironic.

Jan Stuart is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece,’’ and can be reached at jan.stuart7@gmail.com.

THE MARRIAGE ARTIST

By Andrew Winer

Henry Holt, 373 pp., $26