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Book Review : An Artist's Tale That Draws Blanks in Plot, Character

February 27, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

The Whole Art Thing by Justin Spring (St. Martin's: $12.95)

When Amherst art professor Dick Merisi is discovered dead in his studio, hanging from the ceiling in a grotesque parody of neorealism, we naturally expect an academic murder story, but we're wrong. After Merisi is buried, there are no further allusions to his showy demise except a brief account of the reception after the funeral, at which the dead man's colleagues nibbled pink petit fours and speculated about the effect premature death would have on his market value.

Since by then we've met James Sloan, one of Merisi's most gifted students, and been introduced to James' girlfriend, Joan, an aspiring actress, we reluctantly settle for next-best: a contemporary romance about two young people living on love and idealism. Thwarted again, we learn that James and Joan are merely chums, having decided long before the novel begins that friendship is less trouble than passion.

A pity, but things temporarily look up when a merry crew of undergraduates appears, planning parties and tossing off bons mots. Though by now we're resigned to the idea that there will be neither mystery nor romance, but only college high jinks, even that scaled-down expectation bites the dust when none of the fun-loving kids is ever heard from again. At this point, it's suddenly clear that "The Whole Art Thing" may only be a state of mind.

Lowered Expectations

Since that's the case, anticipation should be lowered another notch. Joan and James go downtown to buy James a new pair of shoes. He chooses a pair of "fine hard leather, thin and smooth as a tiny seashell . . . the embrace at the instep was all arching restraint, the kiss of a lady dressed and powdered for luncheon." While at the shoe store, J. and J. meet Guillaume Brix-Webber, an effete but generous Amherst student; the leader of the "off-campus scarf and spectacles set."

Today Gill is wearing gray overalls from the People's Republic of China, his outfit for volunteer work at a soup kitchen. Since Part One is called "Vagabond Shoes," this crucial purchase is clearly meant to be portentous, though it's hard to say exactly why or how.

The next section (not to worry, there are only three) is called "Mrs. Sloan at Home" and describes, more or less, James' uneasy but affectionate relationship with his mother, a lawyer. Now home for the summer, a $1,000 grant from the art department in hand, James settles in to do some serious sketching of the seamier sides of New York.

Since his divorced mother lives in upscale Riverdale, James must commute by subway to find his subjects. Mrs. Sloan is a fitness nut with a particular interest in dental hygiene, a disdain for abstract Expressionism, and an intense desire to see her son abandon art for law; traits that make her neither easy to live with nor easy to read about. We're therefore relieved when James takes up Guillaume Brix-Webber's offer of a room for the summer in the spacious family apartment.

Since the Brix-Webbers live in mid-town Manhattan, James will be closer to the bag ladies and winos who are his favored subjects. He also takes a life class at the Art Students League, a device allowing for the entrance of a few more characters, all clumped together in a section called "Happy Artists."

There's a hint of irony here, because in the course of his studies at the League, James sees the gloomy downside of an artist's life, the poverty and disillusion of the creator contrasted with the wealth and power of manipulative art dealers.

A One-Man Show

Nevertheless, James perseveres and does some first-rate work. By mid-August, he's more than ready to return to the pastoral delights of Amherst, where he spends the rest of the holiday working long days in the college print studio. By the last chapter, "Epilogue," James Sloan is nervously selecting wine and cheese for his one-man show at the Amherst gallery, an ending I would certainly call happy in the simplest, truest sense.

Since the publishers have kindly included the information that the author attended Amherst College and received a summer fellowship in studio art, there's every reason to return the favor by treating "The Whole Art Thing" as the diary of a young person talented in another field altogether; one to which he should devote himself single-mindedly. While it's grand to be a hyphenate, a writer-artist needs to be as concerned with plot and character as with atmosphere. In its present form, "The Whole Art Thing" is no more than a verbal sketch pad.

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