Saint Sebastian’s Abyss

Mark Haber. Coffee House, $16.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-56689-636-8

Haber (Reinhardt’s Garden) returns with a sharp-witted exploration of friendship, art, and criticism. The unnamed narrator receives an email from his former best friend, Schmidt, after 13 years of estrangement, with the news that Schmidt is on his deathbed in Berlin. The narrator flies to Germany, and what ensues is an examination of their decades-long friendship, initially forged over a mutual fascination with Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, a painting of the apocalypse that the two first discovered while students at Oxford. Schmidt and the narrator have since made their careers as art critics based on their insights on the painting and its creator, Count Hugo Beckenbauer. The pair had a devastating falling out after the narrator said something unforgivable, which Schmidt now refers to as “that horrible thing,” and in the years since, the two have resorted to petty vendettas as their work turned away from the painting that they both revere and toward disproving each other’s theories. Schmidt—heavily mustached, chronically ill, and a staunch holder of harsh beliefs—is a difficult friend but memorable character. Haber intelligently explores how his leads’ small-mindedness gets in the way of their higher pursuits, as the narrative zeroes in on an inevitable and surprising conclusion. With this dark comedy of obsession, Haber keeps the Bernhard flame burning. Agent: Danielle Bukowski, Sterling Lord Literistic. (May)
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