The Heat of the Sun
Atlantic Books, €22.45;
Review: Sue Leonard
An old man, Woodley Sharpless looks back on his life. A biographer, he talks of past scandals, in particular of the Pinkerton Affair. This concerned a US senator whose marriage to the beautiful Kate resulted in the suicide of his one-time Japanese lover. There had been several books on the Pinkertons, including a rather bad one that he himself had penned.
The Pinkerton Affair resembled the story of Madame Butterfly. And the author borrows operatic melodrama to tell the story of his own life and of those he encounters. Orphaned as a teenager and crippled by an accident, Sharpless ends up at the exclusive but brutal Blaise Academy. Here, where to survive the in-fighting, strong alliances are formed, he meets the bookish Le Vol, and the young Ben Pinkerton, known by everyone as ‘Trouble’.
Good looking, though small, Trouble’s eccentricities charm all, until someone leaks information that turns affection to disgust. Sharpless, who, initially wasn’t in Trouble’s elite, now helps him, becoming his ‘second’, in his confrontation with the school bully. But despite an act of bravery, Trouble is expelled.
The two meet again in 1920s New York. Sharpless, trying to become a great poet, is living with his colourful Aunt Toolie, when Trouble explodes back into his life. Trouble’s parents befriend Sharpless, feeling he’ll be good for the son they can never quite handle. And though he remains enraptured by Trouble, he’s confused too, and can never fully understand the friend he so admires. Then comes the profligate Blood Red Masked Ball — where through high drama, the secret of Trouble’s background is revealed.
This absorbing novel, told in episodic set pieces, takes the reader through the war and beyond it. We visit pre- and post-war Japan, and, more dramatically, Los Alamos at the time of the Manhattan Atomic Project. Sharpless and Trouble’s lives intertwine on so many levels, as they face change and suffering, yet Sharpless can never quite grasp the extent of his friend’s conflict and anguish.
Meanwhile, Le Vol proves a more steadfast friend. The two form a solid alliance, working together on books of photo journalism and travelling extensively, until Le Vol disappears in China. He resurfaces years later after a punishing war as a prisoner in the Far East, and once the two are reunited, their friendship remains constant.
David Rain is Australian, lives in London, and has taught Literature and writing. His depiction of the US and Americans feels utterly authentic.
His characters are memorable; even those with a walk-on part. The simpering schoolboy Elmsley “has teeth like a rodent’s fangs. And there was something rodenty too in his tapering nose ..... he speared a roast potato on his fork, and stuffed it whole into his mouth. Chewing rapidly, cheeks ballooning, Elmsley resembled more than ever a hairless, pustular rat.”
Sharpless is an engaging if unreliable narrator. As a weakling who feels a failure, he’s too unworldly to understand all he observes. This book captures the gaiety and tumult of a troubled age. But it is ultimately a novel of friendship, of love, and of lives.
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