Norman Rush is famous (and popular with readers who like their novels dense with word play and complication) for very long books set in Africa. Only 256 pages and set mainly in the Catskills, this work is a departure, but it’s still recognizably Rushian. Although Nina, one of two point-of-view characters, isn’t invited, when her husband, Ned, flies off on hearing of the death of the leader of his middle-aged band of college friends, she hops the next plane—she’s ovulating and time is of the essence. Good thing: the Rush responsible for Mating’s distinctive female narrator is still a deft hand at creating smart, funny, complicated women. Ned is likable, too, and it’s nice to see a happy marriage, a rare beast in fiction about the middle-aged. Unfortunately, the rest of Ned’s band of reunited smarty pantses are pills of varying kinds, especially the recently deceased Douglas, whom Nina calls “the world’s champion” of “walking out on foreign films he personally found highly overrated and taking his pack of stupid fool friends along with him.” As events in Douglas’s Catskills castle play out, with the friends coping with their middle-aged selves, the orchestration of Douglas’s funeral, and the byzantine rollout of information about Douglas’s life, marriage, and finances, even Nina can’t save the book from growing talky and claustrophobic. 50,000 first printing. (Sept. 10)
“Rush is the best kind of comic novelist.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A portrait of that notoriously elusive thing, a genuinely happy couple. . . . The book glows with their intimate joy: their private jokes, their sexual teasing, their deep loyalty.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Rush’s characters want to fall in love, to laugh and enjoy themselves. Their quirks, opinions, compulsions . . . keep us engrossed—along with the clarity and precision of Rush’s sentences, the freshness of his observations.” —Francine Prose, The New York Review of Books
“Fans of Rush’s previous opuses will recognize the witty wordplay and intense, erotic eloquence. . . . But even the uninitiated will appreciate the brilliance of Rush’s clear and comedic characterization that causes this meditation on death and masculinity to crackle with energy and mirth.” —Interview Magazine
“Playfully erotic, hopelessly addictive.” —Vogue
“A funny, deeply satisfying look at friendships—why we make them, why we keep them, and how they change us over time.” —Booklist
“Rush’s protagonists tend to speak to each other . . . with formidable intelligence and eloquence, but it’s their linguistic inventiveness that is key to Rush’s remarkably convincing portrayals of enduring romantic love.”—New Yorker.com
“Rarely does one get from a male novelist a female character as lovingly—but unsentimentally—portrayed as Nina. . . . Subtle Bodies is black humor with a female face.” —The Daily Beast
“To a straight woman, the phenomenon of inter-male friendship possesses a certain anthropological interest. . . . So imagine this reader’s delight upon hearing that it’s this very mystery into which Norman Rush delves in Subtle Bodies, and that—hosanna, as one of his characters puts it—he’s given us a female perspective, too.” —The Los Angeles Review of Books
“Rush attends so closely to his characters—their thoughts, words, beliefs, relationships—and landscapes—physical, social, political—that he brings them utterly alive, with often-exhilarating aptitude and insight.” —The Boston Globe
“Rush may be America’s last living maximalist author. In two bulky, Africa-set novels, Mating and Mortals, he astutely explored themes of courtship, outsiderdom and herd mentality. . . . At barely half the length, his Subtle Bodies isn’t a slighter work. But compressed as it is, Rush’s storytelling feels more allegorical, its humor more pointed.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Rush’s defining gift might be his incredible awareness—about politics, about human nature, about the world—which he bestows upon his characters. . . . It makes the reader’s lens of the world a little clearer, a little sharper. If you’ve never read Rush. . . . Subtle Bodies is a more than fine place to begin.” —The Oregonian
“Full of the kinds of perception that skew the world around you and force you to see it differently.” —Baltimore Sun
“The book’s appeal lies in its complex characters, its slow-burn tension and its keen observations.” —Richmond Post-Dispatch
“This book abounds in wit, particularly in its exploration of Ned and Nina’s marriage. . . . His skill at revealing our interior lives is undiminished [and] his concerns with our carnal and intellectual lives remain pleasurably, provocatively intact." —Kirkus, Starred review
“The verbal play and digressions one might expect from Rush, author of the major works Mating and Mortals, but briefer and more accessible. Readers will be immediately drawn into the acutely rendered world swirling around Ned and Nina.” —Library Journal
“Timely. . . . Beautifully rendered. Just the kind of novel dedicated novel readers are always searching for.” —Hudson Valley News
Old friends reunite at a funeral in Rush’s latest work, a basic plot here given lighthearted treatment. Chief among the group is Ned, coming from California to the East Coast and trailed by his wife, Nina, who mildly resents having been left behind but is mainly interested in continuing their attempts to conceive a child. The deceased is Douglas, a charismatic figure around whom the group coalesced at college in the 1970s, united by belief mostly in their superior intelligence but also encompassing vague political and theatrical forces. Douglas had resided on an estate in upstate New York, where, in addition to friends, various representatives of the international media appear to capture the elegiac ceremonies. Nina arrives and immediately immerses herself in the lives of Ned’s gang as the novel unfolds in a humorous and unfunereal fashion, played out against the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
Verdict This novel has the verbal play and digressions one might expect from Rush, author of the major works Mating and Mortals, but is briefer and more accessible. Readers will be immediately drawn into the acutely rendered world swirling around Ned and Nina. [See Prepub Alert, 3/25/13.]James Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.
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Rush's third novel is an outlier--a slim book not set in Botswana--but his concerns with our carnal and intellectual lives remain pleasurably, provocatively intact. The modern classic Mating (1991) and its 2003 follow-up, Mortals, were hothouse experiments in human behavior: Take a bright couple, drop them in a foreign milieu, and watch their primal instincts slowly emerge. This book does much the same thing, though it's set in Rush's native United States. At its center is Ned, a middle-aged activist who has hastened to the castlelike home of his college friend Douglas, who has died in a riding-mower accident. Following close behind is his wife, Nina, who is outraged at Ned for leaving just as she reaches the peak in her fertility cycle; she wants to conceive. Its life-and-death themes settled fast, the novel largely explores the personalities of Ned and three other friends of Douglas who have arrived for the memorial. Douglas was a lifelong provocateur, and in college, this clan was hellbent on undoing social norms, but reconvened, they largely have memories of old bons mots and a widow who's trying to stage-manage the memorial to the last utterance. The setting is funereal, and Rush dwells much on the futility of warring against our natures, yet this book abounds in wit, particularly in its exploration of Ned and Nina's marriage; alternating between their perspectives, Rush ping-pongs their thoughts about lust, love and accomplishment. The brevity of the story highlights its contrived setup--the everybody-stuck-in-the-castle arrangement has an unintentional whiff of an Agatha Christie mystery--and a subplot involving Douglas' troubled teen son is left frustratingly unresolved. But this is a weaker novel only in comparison to Rush's earlier triumphs. His skill at revealing our interior lives is undiminished. Easier to lug around than its predecessors but with plenty of heft regardless.