The Long Corner

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Worlds collide 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 you’d 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 he’s 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 Light’s invitation, but makes it clear that he isn’t promising to write anything. Or that he’ll 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 their breasts.”

Silence reigns supreme. The artists live here for free, trading labor for room and board. They can paint and sculpt to their heart’s content, enjoying the ashram’s “wisdom, peace, light and revelation.” The goal is to convert all of those principles into art and beauty.

Light further expounds on the ashram’s goal in a meeting with Fields. “We must take madness, chaos, wildness and turn it to art, at its very core. That is why we’re here. The pride I feel is immense. I’ll 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 Light’s 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 ashram’s 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 doesn’t believe a work is worthwhile, the artist is banished in brutal, humiliating fashion.

Alexander Maksik

Maksik treats 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.