Arthur Nersesian, . . Perennial, $12.95 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-06-054882-7

Nersesian (The Fuck-Up; Manhattan Loverboy) weaves a heartfelt, tragicomic bohemian romance with echoes of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orloff Trenchant is the quintessential starving artist, leading a hand-to-mouth existence as he struggles to make his mark on the cutthroat New York gallery scene. Dumped by his artist girlfriend for a rich collector, living out of his beat-up van or borrowed lofts and selling used books on the sidewalk to make ends meet, "Or" is beginning to question his art-for-art's-sake ethos when he meets his muse in the person of Rita, a beautiful poetess, prostitute and heroin addict even more desperate than he is. Nersesian sends up the pretentiousness and excesses of the art world, but without the jeering tone the subject usually provokes in satirists. He writes evocatively of the processes and products of the artistic life, and he believes the issues raised by it—realism versus abstraction; money and security versus creativity and passion; the struggle to wrest deathless art from the transience of life, even from a Chinese takeout box (Or is commissioned to sculpt a tombstone in that shape for a deceased restaurateur)—are worth pondering. Indeed, the novel itself is a sprawling, obsessively detailed portrait of the Lower East Side demimonde during the 2000 election, as Or's frenetic life bounces him between used book stores, gallery openings, drug dens and literary dives where poets spout Naderite polemics. Infused with the symbolism of Greek legend, the hip squalor of this milieu takes on a mythic charge that energizes Nersesian's lyrical celebration of an evanescent moment in the life of the city. 4-city author tour. (Aug.)