Less ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Arthur Less is a writer. He is not a very good writer but has enjoyed modest success with the publication of a couple of novels. He has just turned fifty and is lamenting the loss of his youth. He is tall, blond (balding), and gay. He has had several failed relationships with men, including a nine-year stretch with a poet named Robert Brownburn, who is a generation older than Arthur. We are told frequently what a GREAT poet Robert Brownburn is. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Robert Brownburn’s name is rarely spoken in a sentence without the word “genius” in the same sentence. When Arthur Less was twenty-one, he met Robert Brownburn on a San Francisco beach and reputedly “stole” him from his wife.
As Arthur Less approaches his fiftieth birthday, he is alone. He broke up with his most recent boyfriend, one Freddy Pelu, the son (more like nephew) of one of his friends. To assuage the pain of being alone, turning fifty, and knowing that Freddy is marrying somebody else, Arthur embarks on a multi-phase trip (Mexico, Italy, France, Germany, India, Morocco, Japan). He has a reason to go to each country. In Italy, he picks up a literary prize (determined by high school students) for a novel he wrote. It’s not a very good novel, we’re told, but the poet who translated it into Italian made it much better than it ever was in English. In Japan, he’s writing a magazine article about Japanese cuisine, about which he knows nothing. In Berlin, he uses his execrable German to teach a five-week class. He engages in a sexual fling with a young Bavarian, while flirting with, and lusting after, every attractive man he meets in his travels, including a Spaniard his own age whom he meets at a party in Paris right before he must go to the airport to board a plane to his next destination. Don’t worry, though; this is not a “gay” novel and there are no boudoir scenes involving men. The gay stuff is only mentioned in passing and is suitable for twelve-year-olds if twelve-year-olds happen to be reading this book.
So, we see Arthur Less as something of a bumbler. His friends laugh at him and imitate him. He gets lost; his luggage gets lost. Unpleasant things happen to him. He seems to say the wrong thing, wear the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing a lot of the time. He is innocent, self-effacing and full of doubt. Smug and arrogant are two things that Arthur Less is not. We like him and identify with him because he’s not perfect and does stupid things the way we all do.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It cleverly interweaves flashbacks from Arthur Less’s (less than wonderful) life with his foreign travels. It’s a character study that incorporates themes of getting older in a youth-obsessed culture, change and acceptance (disappointment) in life, the pretense and pomposity of the literary world, the American traveling abroad. It’s a breezy 260 pages that will not tax your brain too much and that might make you glad you can read.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp