Friday, October 12, 2012

A back-to-school kind of mystery

Gone Tomorrow
By P. F. Kluge

Gone Tomorrow is a mystery of sorts. When a famous colleague is killed in a hit-and-run accident after having been forced into retirement, thirty-something writing professor Mark May is surprised to learn that the victim had named him his literary executor. The colleague is George Canaris, a renowned writer who was "compared to Faulkner ... at the start of his career" but "resembled Harper Lee" in the end. And when May discovers a manuscript in the dead man's freezer, it turns out not to be Canaris's long-promised magnum opus but rather a memoir of three-and-a-half decades spent teaching and writing at their small Ohio college. May dubs the manuscript "Gone Tomorrow," and the more he reads of it the more he comes to suspect that Canaris may have been the victim of foul play.

But the central mystery of Gone Tomorrow is not whether Canaris's death was accident, murder or suicide. The driving question is whether Canaris actually wrote anything during his 35 years in Ohio and, if so, why he published nothing in all that time. He claimed to be laboring all the while on "The Beast," an ever-expanding epic sprung from an anecdote recounted in the last of his published books. The heart of "The Beast" is a man's final lonely walk through the nighttime streets of Karlsbad (a famous spa town once part of Austro-Hungary, now known as Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic). It is a prelude to exile first performed by German-Jewish film star Kurt Gerron, then by Canaris's father with his infant son in his arms, and finally by Canaris himself. Kluge offers no direct answer to the question of why Canaris evidently could not bring himself to stop working on the Holocaust-haunted story of his birth city, but the reasons will reveal themselves to an attentive reader.

Gone Tomorrow is a Whitman's Sampler of literary delights. Canaris himself is a near-caricature of a mid-20th century writer: cultured, formal, reserved and absolutely repelled by today's verbose and self-indulgent writing. Canaris's frequent offhand swipes at the contemporary canon ("Oh, God, not Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace!") are guaranteed to bring a wry smile to serious readers of a traditional bent. Kluge's depiction of teaching is spot on; anyone who has ever stood in front of classroom will recognize the bittersweet voice of experience here. And through it all a Romantic sense that something important has been lost without our ever having grasped it. But maybe, just maybe, Art can preserve some faint glimmer of the evanescent wonder of a world that is here today, gone tomorrow.

Review by Don Beistle

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