cover image The Tunnel

The Tunnel

William H. Gass. Knopf Publishing Group, $30 (651pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43767-3

This long-awaited magnum opus by the dean of American prose modernists, 30 years in the making, is a terrible disappointment. In this endless ramble of a novel, Gass (Omensetter's Luck; In the Heart of the Heart of the Country), though here, as always, possessed of a bewitching and spectacularly fluid and allusive style, fails to find a suitable home for his narrator's wickedly dyspeptic views of history, marriage and culture. William Kohler is a Midwestern academic historian working on an introduction to his life's work-a massive study of ``guilt and innocence in Hitler's Germany.'' This, however, and the fact that Kohler begins to secretly dig a tunnel out of his basement, are the only shards of plot in this otherwise formless book. Gass, as readers of his fiction and gorgeous literary essays will know (On Being Blue), can turn a phrase and render lyrical descriptions that have not only music to them, but also shape and weight. But in portraying the failed career and life of Kohler, these gifts are brought to bear on such a litany of sour rant-about his aging body, his wife's widening girth, the fatuous enthusiasms of his colleagues and mentors-that the reader will beg for a way out of this dark and airless space. Unfortunately, there is no light at the end of The Tunnel, and the promise of a new perspective on our century's most heinous crime-the Holocaust-is very much a forgotten vow. (Feb.)