REVIEW by Willard Manus
in blackly-comic fashion in THE LONG CORNER, the new novel by Alexander
Maksik. Solomon Fields, a hip, cynical New Yorker finds himself in a California
ashram founded by a wealthy guru named Sebastian Light. Fields, a journalist-turned-ad
man, is the child of a leftist mother and an irreverent grandmother; sarcasm
and irony run in his bloodstream. Which makes him the last person youd
expect to find in a New Age sanctuary oozing with sincerity and goodness
(over its main entrance hangs a sign: Beauty Makes You Free.)
Shades of Auschwitz, thinks Fields, a secular and tough-minded Jew. But
hes been invited here by Light, who much admired the magazine article
the latter wrote about a New York sculptor, Ernst Frankel, and is eager
to receive that kind of critical attention himself. Fields, who has just
quit his lucrative Madison Avenue job--and has been dumped by his girlfriend-is
at a low point in life. He accepts Lights invitation, but makes
it clear that he isnt promising to write anything. Or that hell
be kind should he decide to put a feature together.
Fields settles into life on the ashram, which he thinks of as a kind of
Shangri-la. The resident artists live in scattered cottages, meeting for
meals in a weathered wooden structure resembling a barn. The
hillside property overlooks the ocean and is surrounded by gardens
and chicken coops and grazing goats, greenhouses and orchards. Here
and there, pajama-panted, barebacked, barefoot men tilled
the soil alongside women in similar pants with white bandeaux around
supreme. The artists live here for free, trading labor for room and board.
They can paint and sculpt to their hearts content, enjoying the
ashrams wisdom, peace, light and revelation. The goal
is to convert all of those principles into art and beauty.
Light further expounds on the ashrams goal in a meeting with Fields.
We must take madness, chaos, wildness and turn it to art, at its
very core. That is why were here. The pride I feel is immense. Ill
never tire of it. And why? Why all the work? Why all the suffering? We
do it all for beauty.
Fields, of course, thinks such kind of talk is nothing but a bunch of
platitudes, pure bullshit. He believes in walking to his own tune. I
wanted darkest wit. The cruelest humor. I was so sick of perky optimism
and cloying hope.
But, having accepted Lights hospitality, he tries to make the most
of it. He becomes friendly with a man called Siddhartha (call me
Sid), and two women, Crystalline and Plume. He discovers that they,
like most of the other residents, came here to save themselves from despair
and grief. They were wounded animals badly in need of help, rehabilitation.
Fields also discovers that the ashrams emphasis on health involves
things like sweat lodges, public sex and orgasms, and the imbibing of
noxious fruit juices. Also key is The Biennale, a communal art show over
which Sebastian Light presides with dictatorial hauteur. If he doesnt
believe a work is worthwhile, the artist is banished in brutal, humiliating
these things in a mostly satirical way. But he also
uncovers and investigates the pathos, conflict and heartbreak that lie
at the heart of just about every utopian experience, whether ashram or
not. The experience eventually changes him, humbles him.