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The Deadwood Beetle

The Deadwood Beetle

4.5 2
by Mylene Dressler

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Tristan Martens, a retired entomologist, is shaken by the discovery of his mother's sewing table in a New York antique shop. He hasn't seen it since he was a boy in Holland, but he vividly remembers the last time he did. Only Tristan knows the painful truth behind the scrawled - and misunderstood - inscription on the bottom of the table, and he embarks on a scheme


Tristan Martens, a retired entomologist, is shaken by the discovery of his mother's sewing table in a New York antique shop. He hasn't seen it since he was a boy in Holland, but he vividly remembers the last time he did. Only Tristan knows the painful truth behind the scrawled - and misunderstood - inscription on the bottom of the table, and he embarks on a scheme to acquire it from the shop's owner, Cora Lowenstein, who insists it's not for sale.

But as their lives become entangled, Tristan must make a choice. Can he tell Cora the truth? Begun in deceit, their relationship and Tristan's salvation hinge on his willingness to confront and finally confess the terrible secrets of his family's past.

In startlingly beautiful prose resonant with dramatic tension, Mylene Dressler tells the heartrending story of an old man taking his last chance and struggling toward an elusive redemption and the even more distant hope of love.

Editorial Reviews

Tristan Martens, a professor of entomologist, has a thing for beetles and privacy. Not counting the occasional visits from fiery Elida Hernandez, a doctoral candidate who shares his love of bugs, Martens leads a solitary life amidst the bustle of New York City. Divorced from his wife, Martens' only familial connection is with his son, a religious zealot who lives in Texas. While browsing one day in an antiques shop, Martens stumbles upon an object from his past which stirs up disturbing memories. Hoping to retrieve this heirloom, he befriends the store's manager, the elegant Cora Lowenstein, with whom he becomes romantically involved. As Martens delves painfully into his past, his every action remains precise, his every movement deliberate. Not unlike a scientist, Dessler pays excruciating attention to detail; Ultimately, her characters become as antiseptic as Martens' captured insects.
�Daneet Steffens

Publishers Weekly
This European-flavored novel Dressler's second, after The Medusa Tree tells, in a taut and occasionally elliptical first-person voice, the story of entomologist Tristan Martens, who has devoted his adult life to the study of beetles, the "janitors" who diligently clean up the planet's waste. An atheist, he is estranged from his only child, a troubled boy who grows up to be a gun-stockpiling member of the radical religious right, who accepts his father's Christmas checks but won't let him see his grandson. Divorced, and recently retired from a New York City university, Martens is settling into a life of isolation, despite the efforts of his last graduate student, the exuberant and enthusiastic Elida Hernandez. Then, in an antique store, he stumbles across the blackened pine sewing table that once belonged to his mother. On it is written, in childish handwriting, a Dutch inscription meaning "When the Jews are gone, we will be the next ones." To the owner of the store, the elegant Cora Lasher Lowenstein, this is a "child's warning," as "clear and honest" as the famous one made during World War II by Pastor Niem?ller. To Martens, however, the statement is both ambiguous and dangerous. The table is not for sale, but as Martens embarks on a campaign to persuade Cora to remove it from display, he finds himself on a journey into his childhood during the Nazi occupation. Along the way, Martens begins to learn how to deal with the detritus of personal and political life, which human beings cannot dispose of as cleanly and neatly as beetles dispose of organic leftovers. European world-weariness mingles with American optimism in this accomplished novel, dense with the scrap material of the past.Brilliance Audio. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
While ultimately a tale of Holocaust guilt, Dressler's second novel (after The Medusa Tree) focuses on an aging Dutch immigrant to New York, a retired professor of entomology whose father was a Nazi collaborator and sister a suicide. By chance, Tristan Martens comes across his mother's sewing table in an antique store, recognizing it because of an ambiguous, possibly anti-Semitic quotation he scratched into the underside. This encounter with his past leads to a friendship with the store's owner, whose Jewish husband lies in a vegetative state in a nursing home. Love blossoms slowly between them until, miraculously, the husband awakens from his coma a seeming vengeance against the guilt-ridden professor and the potential of love is snapped. Throughout, Martens's former graduate student helps him to maintain some intellectual enthusiasm with her exciting discoveries of a new beetle behavior discoveries that relate metaphorically to the story itself. Mostly a character study (the slim plot is not an aesthetic device), Dressler's earnest and finely crafted work has all the necessary pieces but as a whole lacks verve. Nevertheless, it is a worthy addition to the burgeoning field of literature of the Holocaust. Harold Augenbraum, Mercantile Lib. of New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A finely crafted if emotionally cool exploration of a legacy of wartime guilt, a burden lifted only when a retired Dutch-born entomologist meets an antique dealer with her own sorrows. Tristan Martens is an authority on beetles. He lives alone in a Manhattan apartment filled with cases of specimens he has collected. Since his bypass surgery, he's acutely conscious of his scarred body, but even more troubled by his psychic scars. His marriage has ended, and his wife now lives with his born-again son Christopher-more a concept than a credible character-who sends ranting messages urging Tristan to repent. In the end-zone of his life, Tristan is in sore need of solace, which he finds when he goes into an antique store and sees his mother's old sewing table. The proprietor, Cora Lowenstein, refuses to sell it because it serves as a necessary reminder of her past. She tells him that the table, which belonged to her husband's aunt, a Jew in hiding during WWII, bears on its underside in a childlike hand an inscription in Dutch: "When the Jews are gone, we will be the next ones." Cora interprets this as a warning, but Tristan knows it's true, and more vicious, meaning. Planning to steal the table, he becomes involved with Cora, taking her to lunch, meeting her for coffee, and accompanying her as she visits her hospitalized husband, now in a coma. These meetings inevitably evoke painful memories of his father, a Dutch Nazi, and his older sister, a Hitler Youth who responded to his family's imprisonment for their collaboration by committing suicide. Haunted by his family's complicity, Tristan finally finds peace as he confesses his past to Cora, who has crises of her own to face. An elegantbut lifeless stories held prisoner by an idea-in this case, the long shadow cast by the war.
The Christian Science Monitor - Ron Charles
The Deadwood Beetle," by Mylène Dressler, is a haunting, demanding story about an old man clinging to strands of stale guilt . . . its execution is perfect. Dressler is a writer of chilling compression and suspense. Almost anything a reviewer might say about the plot would spoil this compelling mystery. What can be said, though, is that Dressler has written a beautiful, sensitive story about the struggles of the heart to beat toward redemption under the weight of its own remorse.

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Blue Hen Trade
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5.24(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.68(d)

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by Mylène Dressler



Set in contemporary New York, with flashbacks to Nazi-occupied Holland, The Deadwood Beetle is the heartrending story of an old man taking his last chance and struggling toward an elusive redemption and the even more distant hope of love. In pitch-perfect and elegant prose, Dressler weaves a moving story about WWII and its aftermath that is truly different from any other, telling a deeply compassionate story about crippling guilt and the enduring, and very human, hope for love and forgiveness.



Mylène Dressler was born in The Hague, The Netherlands and has lived in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Her first novel is The Medusa Tree. She is a recipient of the Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters and the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Houston, where she is at work on her next book.


How was writing this novel different than writing your first?

I think I can best describe it by saying that writing a first novel feels like drawing a map to a place you've never seen but are longing to get to, while writing a second is like standing with that beautiful map in your hands—only it doesn't describe the new country you're in. All the experience of having made that first map—of writing—goes with you, of course, all the gained knowledge of structure and form and character. But with each new work, the way "through" has to be found all over again. When I began writing The Deadwood Beetle, for example, I had to discover almost everything about its setting and characters; I didn't even know, at first, that the book's narrator, Tristan Martens, would be a specialist in insects. And this as it turned out exactly mirrored the process I went through writing my first book: one of beginning with only a voice in my head and the barest outline of an idea, and then having to thrash my way through.

What research did this novel require? Did it require any, or with some knowledge of basic historical facts, did the story simply emerge?

Parts of the story emerged from my basic understanding of the Second World War, of postwar life in Europe and America—even of things like the forms and rituals common to universities. But The Deadwood Beetle also grew out of very specific research, undertaken while I wrote and thought about the book, into such widely-spaced matters as the diversity and complexity of the insect world, cycles of stories associated with the legend of Tristan and Isolde, and the record of captures, trials, and punishments meted out to Nazi collaborators.

What inspired this novel?

Many things. Curiosity about writing entirely from the perspective of a seventy-year-old man, for one. The desire to write on a familiar theme, and a familiar subject, but while peering out from a little-known corner of history and memory. Also a story I once heard, about a child who hid under a table, and scratched something innocent into the wood. But what, I thought, if what was written there hadn't been so innocent? What if instead it had been something terrible? Or worse, something ambiguous?

Your first novel, The Medusa Tree, dealt with Dutch-Indonesian history. In The Deadwood Beetle, you re-visit Dutch history. Why did you return to this region and its past?

I was born in The Hague, and though I emigrated with my family to America when I was very young, the Netherlands was still a natural starting place for me when I began to imagine myself as a writer. There are also things that I find absolutely fascinating about Holland—this tiny nation that has taken to the sea and for centuries launched its people in all directions around the globe. I suppose I like to think of myself as only one of its recent emissaries. And then, too, it may be that my novels tend to span and return to different continents because of my own family's particular history of wandering and reclaiming.

Do you consider yourself an ethnic writer? What do you think of such labels and categories?

I think of myself as a world writer—which is to say I think of myself as a writer, period. I don't feel particularly constrained by geographic, ethnic, or racial boundaries. The label "ethnic writing" unfortunately doesn't signify very well, to my mind, some of the things it's trying so hard to signify—namely, the work of someone attempting to bring a particular racial or cultural experience into focus, an experience that in the past may have been neglected or ignored or misunderstood. The problem is, once we attach a label like "ethnic" to certain contributions to literature, that work somehow ends up getting cut off—and sometimes cuts itself off—from the very dialogue it's meant to enlarge and enrich. Categories of this sort can also throw up the most frustrating barriers: are only writers of a certain ethnicity "allowed" to write about that ethnicity? I don't believe so. In fact, I tend to see what writers do—which is basically rise in the morning and try to remember other people are living on the planet, and then try to imagine what life might be like for them—as only a formal extension of our common human project, what we do when we're at our best. The responsibility inherent in that project is first to imagine, then to take steps to find out and understand.

You have lived in Texas for roughly 15 years, and your third novel is set in the South. Can you give us a sense of what your new book is about and how, aside from setting, it is different from your first two books? Why did you choose to write about the South now?

I've traveled a great deal, and all over the world, but for the last fifteen years the South has been the place I've most often come back to, and that I've come to think of as "home," although I've never quite lost the feeling of being a transplant here. Ultimately of course it's as important to imagine the people in your own backyard as it is to consider the plight of an aging European beetle expert in New York City. My new book looks at the lives of several characters, of different backgrounds and races, all thrown together in a small southern town. It's a departure from my first two books not just in setting, but in compression: the story takes place in just a few days, and everything that we can know about and imagine for these characters has to be made clear under the strain of a ticking clock.

You obviously pay a great deal of attention to craft. What is your process? What writers do you consider as your teachers?

My process is to stare at the computer until a decent sentence occurs to me—and then to stare at that sentence until I understand some of its implications and possibilities—and then, based on that, to write another sentence. It's very improvisational, which I like because it makes the act of writing, which is so sedentary, seem daring, as though I'm not in a chair at all but dangling from a cliff or a limb. The "craft" comes from being distressed by any sentence that simply lies there on the page, doing nothing worth swinging out for. The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham used to describe this kind of feeling among artists as one of "divine dissatisfaction." My first teachers weren't just writers but artists of all kinds; I still derive tremendous inspiration from dancing and painting, when I'm not being mesmerized, that is, by people like Edith Wharton, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Faulkner, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, or Penelope Fitzgerald.

Do you view a book as part of a dialogue—with readers? With the larger literary world?

Though it sounds selfish, first a book is a dialogue with myself. If I can't hold my own attention, if the characters I have created and the human problems I'm sorting through aren't valuable to me, as a reader, it seems unlikely they'll be of interest to any other reader. Once my story is well underway I can feel myself beginning to imagine how it might join in conversation with the rest of the world, and at that point I also tend to remember why it is I write: because there are questions I want to ask—What is forgiveness? How do we understand responsibility? Where can we be at home with consequence?—that I no longer want to be alone in asking or trying to answer.

You tackle subjects we've read about in other novels, but you always seem to tackle them from a unique perspective. In The Medusa Tree, you tell the story of the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies during WWII, but from the perspective of an elderly lesbian couple. In The Deadwood Beetle, you revisit WWII, but your main character is the son, now an old man, of minor Nazi sympathizers. What is it about difference that interests you? Are identity, assimilation, difference, and acceptance themes that will recur in your fiction in the future?

Yes, I think so. So many good stories have already been told that, for me, as a writer, the question really isn't one of trying to come up with some as-yet-unheard-of plot or idea, but rather to think about the way stories interact and illuminate each other, and also how they sometimes shade or shadow one another—certain corners of experience, in this way, get folded under the overlap. Finding those corners and bringing them to light doesn't just allow a writer to tell a "different" story but changes the way we think about the stories we already know. Crafting characters who are hearing themselves speak or perhaps be heard for the very first time helps me to think about how essential storytelling is to our sense of self and difference, but also about the way it brings us into contact with—binds us to—the rest of the world. It isn't until Tristan has told his story in The Deadwood Beetle that he realizes being discovered as distinct doesn't have to mean being isolated. For me, that last image in the book—of light shining from under a closed doorway—says volumes about how, yes, of course, we all live in private rooms of experience; but we still send signals streaming outward.



  1. Loss ripples through this novel. How, in the end, does loss create its opposite?

  2. History has a force all its own in this novel. Would you say Tristan has free will or is he trapped by forces beyond his control?

  3. In this novel, religion and religious beliefs often have negative associations. Is religion or religious belief also a positive thing? Is the author asking where redemption and forgiveness come from?

  4. How does the theme of difference/being different work in this novel? How about the theme of connecting?

  5. This novel deals with what cripples bodies and hearts. How are Tristan and Sandor's situations parallel or different? What does Dressler seem to suggest is most crippling? What does she offer as a balm?

  6. In some ways, this is a novel about academia. How does it present the intellectual life?

  7. Is this a love story?

  8. Craft is as important to this novel as the plot—as is often true for books. But why is this especially the case here?

  9. Cora wants the table to serve as a reminder and warning. In the end, has it?

Meet the Author

Mylene Dressler was born in the Hague, Netherlands, and has lived in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. The author of the critically acclaimed The Medusa Tree, she now lives in Houston, where she is at work on her next book

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Deadwood Beetle 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just ran across this treasure which I read ten years ago and cant believe no one has wriyten a review of it yet! Beautifully written... a fascinating mystery...delicate prose,,,impossible to put down nor forget.
Tamara87 More than 1 year ago
I had the pleasure of reading this novel for a class. Dressler met with my class and discussed her novel with us. She was very open to our interpretations of her work. She is a very invigorating woman and she was very engaging. Aside from her personality, Dressler's book is a fascinating look into humanity and how we perceive our relationships. I recommend this book for a rainy day or anyone interested in family dynamic and how humans interact with one another.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! I was fascinated by the contrast between the despair and guilt being shouldered by Tristen, whose family were Nazis during World War II, and the utter disdain for this brooding by his son, who had done a 180 and gone to Texas to join the gun-toting, intolerant religious right. Rebellion by succeeding generations is okay to a point, but this novel makes it clear we should learn from the past, or 'when the jews are gone, we will be the next ones,' will not just be a saying the main character finds scratched on a desk, but our future.