cover image Orfeo


Richard Powers. Norton, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-24082-5

Seventy-year-old Peter Els, a divorced and retired adjunct professor living in suburban Pennsylvania, is the latest protagonist from Powers (who won the National Book Award for The Echo Maker). When Els’s dog has a heart attack, police respond to his 911 call and stumble into a room converted into an amateur biochemical engineering lab. While Els doesn’t have malicious intent—this is just the final phase of a life spent enthralled with creation, first musical, now chemical—the Feds are suspicious. Rapidly, Els becomes a fugitive from the law and a presumed domestic bioterrorist. As he flees west, he visits the people who have shaped his life, but are now estranged from him—his ex-wife, his ever-eccentric creative partner, his anxious daughter. The backstory of Els’s life, from childhood to the present, is woven expertly through his escape narrative. The shy, clarinet-toting boy is as believable as the young man in love, the awestruck father, and the out-of-touch husband. But the scenes at the University of Illinois in the 1960s—where John Cage stages epic musical performance pieces and Els, inspired, creates his own— are the most vivid. Powers’s talent for translating avant-garde music into engrossing vignettes on the page is inexhaustible. Els’s obsession with avant-garde music, which isolates him from everyone he loves, becomes the very thing that aligns him with the reader. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Jan.)