cover image The Uncle from Rome

The Uncle from Rome

Joseph Caldwell, Author Viking Books $22 (304p) ISBN 978-0-670-84058-8

Michael Ruane, an undistinguished opera singer from Indiana, has come to Naples to play a minor role in an important production of Tosca and an important role in a minor production of Curlew River . As this shrewd and splendid novel begins, the diva starring in Tosca asks Michael to play yet a third role. It is, she tells him, an old Neapolitan custom to pay a distinguished-looking man to attend family functions and pose as the ``uncle from Rome,'' his presence suggesting the host's prestige and social standing, and she wants Michael to appear at the wedding of local friends in the guise of the groom's uncle. Michael agrees, entangling himself in a complex drama that rivals the two operas in its passion and surpasses them in its capacity for perpetual surprise. Caldwell ( Under the Dog Star ) balances the theatrics of his plot with an understated narration, and weights his themes--the interplay of life and art--with careful, colorful observations. (Of laundry hung out to dry, for example, he writes: ``The bold emblems or the tattered banners sent out their jubilant or melancholy news, and one could tell at a glance who was favored and who was scorned by the local gods.'') The finale is nothing short of extraordinary. (Jan.)