Sunday, August 22, 2004

Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath review, Charlotte Observer, Aug. 20, 2004. But do me a favor -- read the fuller version printed below:

When Good Characters Happen to Bad Mysteries

Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath. Alfred A. Knopf. 256 pages. $24.00

Patrick McGrath's Port Mungo is a mildly intriguing novel about the blood-sucking nature of art, and a mystery story that promises more than it delivers.

The promise begins with the narrator, Gin Rathbone, whose adoring recollections of her late brother, Jack, will immediately set off alarm bells in any reader's mind. Jack, a tortured artist who has just recently committed suicide, spent most of his life living off Gin and the last twenty years under her watchful care. Gin presents him as a weak, needy, thoroughly wasted alcoholic and, she insists, a genius. He is, also, the unrequited love of her life, and she regards him with nothing short of masochistic awe.

Gin is, actually, something of an artist herself where Jack is concerned: his art is her life, his story is hers, and her story is a self-portrait. She is a kind of mirror of Jack; just as he absorbs her and everyone around him into his universe, Gin, in telling her story, does the same thing.

Following the spiraling trajectory of her brother's life from the days of their privileged English upbringing, she gives us a picture of a wild and virile youth who seduced their governess, then went on, at 17, to seduce the artist Vera Savage, who was 30, Scottish, beautiful and restless. While Gin accepts her role as a player in Jack's world -- her goal only to "mark out a distinct and unassailable position in his retinue" -- she is both deeply jealous and weirdly understanding of Vera. "I knew his strength, I knew his drive, and I knew she needed him if she were to grow, and flourish, and be fulfilled as a woman and an artist, though I was not certain that she understood this, I couldn't be sure she knew she needed him, and that he would solve the problem of her existence."

With Vera, Jack runs off first to Manhattan during the years of Abstract Expressionism, and then to Port Mungo, the grimy Honduran backwater where the couple are intent on living la vie boheme. Instead, their lives turn into a long squalid hell of adultery, alcohol and frustrated ambitions. Gin is both in and out of the picture, during these years, stitching together a story both from memories of her own visits and what Jack tells her later. Things ultimately come to a head in Port Mungo when Peg, the couple's wild-child eldest daughter, dies at 16 in a mysterious boating accident. Consequently, another daughter, Anna, is taken away at the age of four to live with Jack and Gin's older brother, for reasons that might give away too much. She returns years later as a young woman, bent on finding out what really happened to her sister back in Port Mungo, which is ultimately the mystery of the book – and not all that much of one.

We know from the beginning that Gin isn't playing straight with us. The first thing you think is that Gin, maybe, isn't really Gin. Maybe Jack or Vera have assumed her identity -- maybe we're looking at a character like the ones in Nabokov's novels or movies like Psycho or Fight Club or The Usual Suspects or Spider (based on McGrath's own novel), these nut case chameleons living under elaborate delusions.

I suppose I should be grateful it didn't go that route – that whole device is beginning to show its age – and that McGrath aims for more than just trickery. He's trying to get at the nature of narcissism, which in the book means this all-consuming impulse to sacrifice everything and everybody to the demands of the creative life. To a point, he makes it; there's a strange cohesion the story assumes as Jack emerges as an artist whose only subject is himself and whose only style is whatever he can steal. Unfortunately, the story lurches and heaves throughout with the sense of a big surprise that turns out to be no surprise at all.

Unreliable narrators, like artists, are a demanding lot, and McGrath only meets her needs partway. I kept getting this sense that Gin had a much better story to tell than the more modest, and ultimately trite, one her creator had in mind.

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