Salamanca's 'Trance': Artfulness gone to waste

July 02, 2000|By Craig Nova | Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

"That Summer's Trance," by J.R. Salamanca. Welcome Rain. 520 pages. $24.95.

One of the most obvious facts about "That Summer's Trance" is that J.R. Salamanca is a wonderful, if not profound writer, a novelist who invites comparison with the very best. It is important to say this at the beginning, since any discussion of this book implies that the standards applied here are of the highest.

Having said that, the central question one has about "That Summer's Trance" is why the use of so much skillful talent should be applied to a subject, the corruption of the artist by material success, that has been worked over so regularly in the past. There is a new twist here, to be sure, but, still, we have seen the exposure of rank materialism before (this book owes a lot to Babbit), and, for that matter, we have seen the collision of the artistic sensibility and the world of the Philistine previously, too, in such books as Jack London's "Martin Eden."

"That Summer's Trance" is an account of Ben Oakshaw, a young man of humble beginnings who nevertheless has a great gift as an actor. He manages to escape the poverty of his youth and to attend acting school in London. There he has some success, and an affair, too, with a young actress, Jill, whom he forsakes in favor of a better-connected and richer young woman.

Ben comes back to the States, but rather than pursuing his art (in this book it should probably be Art), he becomes, if you can believe it, a successful advertising man. In his middle thirties, he goes to see a play that has come to this country from England, one written by his one-time squeeze, who has now become a playwright and who acts in her own plays.

The play, of course, is an account of Ben's betrayal. Still, Ben and his wife, Priss, go backstage to say hello to Jill, and then invite her to spend some time with them at their beach place in Cape Hatteras. Ben has a short, second fling with Jill, who then, a few years later, writes another play about the second seduction, and this time Ben is asked not only to see it, but to put money into it.

He does, and on opening night his wife realizes what a cad/failed artist (no, make that Artist) Ben really is, and leaves him flat. It is a case, or so it seems, not only of a talented man betraying Art, so much as Art betraying a cad.

Given that this is the theme Salamanca has chosen, his dispatching of it is done with an exquisite sensibility through which the seductions of modern materialism are carefully delineated. It is filled with lovely descriptions, such as one in which a man on the beach has his legs covered with a "cold glissade of water."

One reads it with a kind of wonder at the skill of it, like watching an ice skater doing compulsory figures, but yet with dismay that so much ability should be put to use in the service of matters that have already been so perfectly illuminated. Surely, Mr. Salamanca is a gifted novelist, but in this case, his theme is profoundly inferior to his obvious and great talent.

Craig Nova is theauthor of 10 novels, including "The Good Son," "Tornado Alley" and "The Universal Donor." Lyons recently released his "Brook Trout and the Writing Life." He is at work on a new book and on a screen adaptation of "The Good Son."

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