Emma Who Saved My Life

Wilton Barnhardt, Author St. Martin's Press $19.95 (0p) ISBN 978-0-312-02911-1
This first novel comes with a highly eulogistic note from the publisher, and on this occasion the enthusiasm is right on the mark. Emma is a winner--a book of enormous charm, full of sharp, often acid, character sketches, memorable scenes, alternately touching and uproariously funny, that linger in the memory--and told in a narrative style so cunningly paced and organized that it is difficult to believe this is really the work of a first-time writer. (We are assured, however, that he is a North Carolina-born graduate student at Oxford, and that this is truly his first book.) It's the story of Gil Freeman, a young aspiring actor just arrived from the Midwest in New York in the mid-'70s, and his progress as a thespian, as well as a lover and friend to a variety of Manhattan denizens of that time and place. Emma Gennaro, from the moment he becomes one of her roommates, is particularly close to Gil's heart: a frenzied, funny, desperate soul whose increasingly real agonies, with drugs and the surrounding society, take her further and further away from him. Nothing is conventional about their relationship; neither can entirely do without the other, yet the only time they consummate their long affection is in an agonizing scene close to the end of the book. There are fragmentary suggestions, at the beginning, middle and end of Gil's story, that it's all being told in safe retrospect, from the perspective of a man if not entirely happy in marriage and fatherhood, at least beyond youthful indiscretions. But the immediacy of his years in New York, in a series of dreadful apartments, mingling with the bohemians and charlatans of the theater, auditioning, conniving, being briefly and ashamedly successful, is overwhelming. The zany flavor of city life has seldom been better caught, and there are set-pieces here, like a party at the loft of a hostess despised by all her guests, an absurd July 4th weekend at the Jersey shore, scenes in a grungy all-night cafe, that leap from the page in their gritty authenticity, their exact ear for dialogue. Barnhardt's only fault is an occasional too-easy blackout, a refusal to take a scene to its ultimate implications for the sake of moving things along. But that's a minor flaw in what has to be one of the most promising fictional debuts in many years. 100,000 first printing; $100,000 ad/promo; author tour. (June)
Reviewed on: 04/30/1989
Release date: 05/01/1989
Genre: Fiction
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