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Book Review: Deprivation

By (July 2, 2013) No Comment

Deprivation, or, Benedetto furioso: an oneiromancydeprivation

by Alex Jeffers
Lethe Press, 2013

Ben Lansing, the slightly hapless just-out-of-college hero of Alex Jeffers’ new book Deprivation (alternately titled “Benedetto furioso,” sub-titled “an oneiromancy,” and subliminally titled “I can’t decide”), lives in Providence, Rhode Island and commutes an hour every morning to his job in Boston, works all day, and then commutes an hour back to Providence, and the process has led him deep into the grey wilds of sleep deprivation. This is odd – it’s the opening oddness of a surreally odd book. Many hundreds of people make that same commute in real life every day; Jeffers himself has very likely done it – it doesn’t lead to sleep deprivation of any kind, much less the thoroughly hallucinatory kind poor Ben experiences, but it’s a measure of Jeffers’ quietly stunning literary ability that no reader will care for longer than two or three pages about what a wimp Ben must be. Two or three pages: that’s how long it takes Deprivation to cast its spell.

Ben’s exhaustion causes him to slip in and out of constantly-shifting dream-realities, one of which is a copper-glinting idealized version of Renaissance Italy right out of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, an epic verse romance which forms the imaginative touchstone of the whole book (and which informs one of its fifteen alternate titles). Ariosto’s poem is unknown to modern readers, but Jeffers, bless him, is steeped in its wonders; pennant-topped castles, heroic knights, and mythical hippogriffs populate this dream-Tuscany where Ben roams “unarmed, defenseless, out of context,” and Jeffers infuses it with a sharply observant modern sensibility:

The hippogriff was more real, more all of a piece, than he could have imagined, more beautiful. Ariosto’s description had hardly done the beast justice. Ben could smell the sharp odor of horse sweat. When it whickered again, a waft of its breath reached him, sweet with fermented grass and yet carrying an undertone of carrion.

In real-world Boston, Ben encounters a series of characters outre enough to be fantasies themselves. In a fugue he meets three siblings – Gioia, Laud, and sylphlike Dario – squatting in an abandoned warehouse, and on a cold Boston street he runs into – literally – a lanky, sexy bike messenger named Neddy, and the whole time he’s pining (without always realizing it) for his magnetic young former Italian teacher Paul Antonescu; also present, acting as an anchor for all the book’s locational flights of fancy, is the city itself, impinging in all its moods on scene after scene:

All around them, downtown Boston rose into the air, the polished granite and marble, the glazing and gilding of elegant, whimsical new office highrises climbing twenty and thirty storeys into the curlded white sky, steepling in from narrow eighteenth-century streets that changed name, direction, and character every two or three blocks.

(Less charmingly omnipresent is tobacco addiction; virtually every character in the book smokes, and they’re always happy and relieved to do so, and their doing so is always lovingly, lingeringly described – Benedetto furioso could just as accurately be Benedetto fumoso, although the last thing it needs is another title)

But the most memorable atmospheric element in Deprivation isn’t the private version of the Renaissance that Ben conjures in his dreams – it’s the very public version visible in the artwork of the age. Jeffers devotes whole pages at a stretch to Ben’s fascination with Renaissance painting, and the descriptions that result are some of the book’s most stirring, whether they be fairly short and factual, as when Ben contemplates the great El Greco painting Fray Hortensio Felix Faravicino in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts:

Of course he was a Spaniard, ascetic, ruthless – and, with his broad, cruel mouth and long, paradoxically delicate hands, beautiful in a way that was terrifying. He’d chew you up and spit out the pieces. He’d burn you at the stake.

Titian's Ranuccio Farnese

Titian’s Ranuccio Farnese

To his far more ruminative speculations on, of all things, the man Titian’s Ranuccio Farnese (whom the artist painted as a boy) will grow up to be:

Another face hides behind the painted face: the face of the man Ranuccio Farnese will become, as lovely as the boy, recognizably the same but not the same. He will be beautiful not as an angel is, untouchable, but with a tactile, eccentric beauty. He will be thin but not yet gaunt, his features expressive of the skull beneath the skin. The dense black stippling of beard below olive skin will invite touch as the blade of a file invites a finger’s proving of its grain. The lips will invite kisses, first chaste, then passionate, the formidable eyes invite confidence while revealing no secrets. And his hands will be large, boney, sensitive and demanding as they take your chin, your cheek, tilt your own head to its best, its only advantage.

These masterful passages enliven the book at periodic intervals and provide a welcome intellectual and aesthetic balance to the more standard carnal passages that usually typify gay fiction (Steve Berman, the mastermind behind Lethe Press, has an enviable track record of avoiding standard-issue fare; his reissue of Jeffers’ great debut novel Safe as Houses demonstrated that early on)(and, it must be remembered, he published Moontusk), although in Jeffers’ case, even those carnal passages are sinuously, wonderfully done. There’s a bravura scene in Deprivation, in which Neddy slowly paints Ben’s naked body, that’s far more perceptively erotic than anything more biddable readers will find in Fifty Shades of Whatever.

Ben’s favorite poet, we’re told in a helplessly nerdy moment, is Robert Browning, even though Ben (like Browning, come to think of it) isn’t all that impressed by how the English language stacks up against his beloved Italian:

There was something about an Italian sentence on the page that, even more than its spoken vocalise, simply moved him in a way English couldn’t – the cascades of slippery doubled consonants, of cunningly placed and articulated vowels, elisions, enjambments, ligatures – the language begged to be written, and read, where the orthography of English struck him aways as clumsy, approximate, a dodgy attempt to do adequately what could not be done well.

Readers of Deprivation will find nothing clumsy or approximate; instead, they’ll find plenty of cunning – and a good deal of beauty. This is one oneiromancy readers shouldn’t miss.