Sporting with Smaryllis

Paul West, Author Overlook Press $14.95 (160p) ISBN 978-0-87951-666-6
A rich feast for lovers of ornate and stylish prose, West's (The Tent of Orange Mist) latest short novel takes as its protagonist the poet John Milton, although the story is a far cry from a conventional work of historical fiction. The bulk of the narrative concerns a single fantastical encounter between a teenage Milton, sent back to London by his Cambridge tutor, and a mysterious black woman who is possibly one of the classical muses, and whom Milton names Amaryllis after a shepherdess in Virgil. Explicitly linking sexuality and creativity, West has Milton's tryst with Amaryllis serve as the poet's initiation into both realms. Indeed, West's adolescent Milton is so sex-obsessed that he sometimes seems a Renaissance Portnoy, and at times the earthiness of the novel (which also features musings on the plague, castration, and bodily processes and decay) rises to rather uncomfortable levels. Occasionally verging on the surreal, the novel has an allegorical quality while refusing to settle into any straightforward set of meanings. Both Milton and Amaryllis are a little less than fully formed, hovering uneasily between being mythic constructs and well-rounded characters. The real protagonist here is arguably language itself, and the sheer gorgeousness and texture with which West delineates both the artistic and the sensual supplies abundant rewards. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 12/02/1996
Release date: 12/01/1996
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