cover image The Blue Guitar

The Blue Guitar

John Banville. Knopf, $25.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-385-35426-4

Readers will hang on to every word written by Man Booker Prize winner Banville (Ancient Light), because he knows their thoughts before they do. Narrating this tale is the curmudgeonly, melancholy, and hapless Olly Orme, who, "pushing fifty and [feeling] a hundred," is back in the English village of his birth and suffering through a mid-life crisis. A modestly successful "paintster" who gives up painting for existential reasons ("What's the difference between a blimp and a guitar? Any old object serves..."), and a rather philosophical thief for whom the thrill of stealing eventually wanes, Olly stumbles through an affair with Polly, his friend Marcus's companion. When the lovers are found out, Olly runs away to the house where he was born, but is set upon by Polly and dragged to her own family home. A mad-hatter couple of days ensues in which Olly is tortured with cups of tea and English damp%E2%80%94and for the first and last time is caught stealing, in this case a little volume of poetry bound in crimson cloth. When he finally escapes and encounters his sensible wife again, she reveals a secret of her own. Olly muses on each escapade, hilarious until such sadness sets in that no one inside or out of the story seems likely to survive it. And yet, Banville is such a fine architect of sentences%E2%80%94infusing them with wit and yearning%E2%80%94that the plot hardly matters. For what a brilliant navel-gazer Banville is: he creates loop-de-loops of self-absorbed prose that resonate so deeply about the human condition that they never become tiresome. Bon mots fill these pages, every one essential. "What we were sorrowing for was all that would not be, and that kind of vacuum, believe me, will suck in as many tears as you have to shed." If in the end readers believe they know Olly Orme, they will know themselves as well. "Make some lesson out of that, if you will; I haven't the heart." (Sept.)