cover image The Eighth Wonder of the World

The Eighth Wonder of the World

Leslie Epstein, . . Other Press/Handsel, $25.95 (461pp) ISBN 978-1-59051-250-0

Epstein's (King of the Jews ; San Remo Drive ) ninth book imagines a wisecracking American architectural genius, Amos Prince, who, after fleeing America, wows Mussolini with the design for a mile-high skyscraper. The absurdist encounters between these two men—alongside Rome's Arch of Titus or in the staterooms of the Hindenberg —read like scenes from an opera buffa, in which Mussolini's barking, self-aggrandizing oratory is hilariously undercut by Amos's sly wordplay. The novel soon focuses on Amos's young Jewish-American acolyte, Maximilian Shabilian, who shares Prince's obsessive dream of completing the tower and becomes entangled with the architect's dysfunctional family (and, predictably, his beautiful daughter). As World War II intensifies, Amos descends into livid anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, while Max launches a tragic attempt to save the Jews of Rome by enlisting them to work on the skyscraper. The complexly structured narrative leaps between a turbulent present-day plane ride, flashbacks to 1930s and '40s Italy and Amos's rambling journal entries. Some readers may feel uneasy at the mixing of farce and tragic fact, and the novel doesn't shy away from unpleasantness; descriptions of violence are unflinching. But artful writing sustains a novel as ambitious as the Babel-like tower it describes. (Oct. 17)