AMBASSADOR OF THE DEAD

Askold Melnyczuk, Author
Askold Melnyczuk, Author . Counterpoint $24 (256p) ISBN 978-1-58243-132-1
Reviewed on: 05/14/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
Paperback - 258 pages - 978-0-9839763-3-2
Paperback - 265 pages - 978-1-58243-251-9
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This tale of Ukrainian immigrants' attempts at adjustment to life in America has a dreamy affect, but its undercurrent of emotional honesty gives it bite. Nick, a Boston doctor, is drawn back to his hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., by the news that his childhood friend Alex is in trouble—although he does not yet know what kind of trouble. He finds first that Alex's mother, Ada, once vibrant and attractive, is now embittered, lonely and nearly blind. Nick reminisces about his past, focusing on memories of his friend for most of the book. As a child, Alex was mischievous, but eventually became more and more wild, due in part to his father's abuse and subsequent abandonment. Throughout the novel he is agitated by society and by his own psyche, gradually losing his sanity. Melnyczuk (What Is Told) writes exceedingly well-controlled miniature narratives that begin as soft-focus reveries and develop into darker tales that confidently clinch the attention and release it just as smoothly. One of Alex's mother's early lovers seems gentle during their initial courtship, then expresses sadomasochistic desires; she pursues another failed romance with an émigré poet. Even the story of the narrator's marriage is laced with strife: his wife confesses that she had rejected his earliest advances because he was Ukrainian and she was Jewish. The book drifts in a Proustian fashion, vividly portraying the difficulties of cultural assimilation until the jarring conclusion. Recollections that might have fizzled in another author's hands here grow luminous and haunting. (May)

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