Harry, Revised by Mark Sarvas

HarryRevised.jpgI am not a literary critic. Sure, this blog may be loosely “literary” to the extent I talk about literature. But mostly I am just a person who loves to read and writes what he thinks about books on the internet. I try to honestly communicate what I like and don’t like about the books I read. I am comfortable offering my opinion. And in this sense I suppose I am a critic.

I find the idea of writing a novel so daunting, however, as to be almost incomprehensible. I simply can’t imagine the work and creative skill involved in making up dialog, creating and describing characters, keeping the plot straight, etc. That is why I love to interact with authors. It is with a sense of awe at what they are able to accomplish. When someone I am in any way connected to writes a book then it makes it that much more interesting.

Mark Sarvas and I are connected by nothing more than the fact that we both have blogs. I have exchanged some emails with him and commented on his blog. We aren’t exactly blog soul mates, however. He is a West Coast liberal and I am a Midwest conservative. (In fact, we had something of a falling out during the last election – if it could be called that.)

Nevertheless, he is a talented blogger and a love for books can surely overcome politics. With this in mind, I wanted to read his first novel and genuinely hoped it met with success. And so when it came out I read it.

Feel free to take what I say with whatever amount of salt grains you feel are appropriate. Maybe I am just kissing up to a famous lit blogger. Maybe I want to join that infamous clique and reap the link love that is said to come with it. Maybe I am just not as sophisticated a judge of literature as the New York Times.

But I will admit that I liked the book and even found it moving. It is a comic story about grief, deception, and self-perception.

More after the jump.

For those of you totally unfamiliar with the book here is short synopsis from PW:

This debut novel from popular literary blogger Sarvas focuses on the midlife crisis of recently widowed Harry Rent. Harry maintained a complicated and uneasy relationship with his wife, Anna, who died during a cosmetic surgery procedure. On the day of her funeral, Harry meets Molly, a raven-haired diner waitress and grad student, and is smitten. To win Molly’s heart, Harry devises a bizarre plan to transform himself from the sleazy, lying john that he’d become into an honorable and noble gentleman straight from the pages of a Dumas novel, through a series of far from selfless acts aimed toward Molly’s old, crotchety co-worker, Lucille. Harry stalks Lucille to ascertain her financial needs and tries to rectify her pitiful situation-all just to get a night of passion with Molly, who already has one deadbeat in her life. Harry is also being followed by the private investigator hired by his sister-in-law, Claire, who holds Harry responsible for sending the beautiful Anna to her early death, but he is too wrapped up in his own game to notice.

I will admit that it took me a few pages to acclimatize to Mark’s writing style and I will also admit that it might not be for everyone. Troy Patterson seemed to become obsessed with it to the point of excluding everything else.

But what kept me going was Harry. Perhaps because I could relate. Not that I am a radiologist who married a wealthy and beautiful wife out of my league (my wife doesn’t come from money), but that I often find myself spacing out and living inside my head. I can relate to he way he finds his world upside down without having consciously taken the steps that put it there. How he avoids risk and procrastinates and yet finds not safety but more trouble. How even good fortune can increase his insecurity and self-doubt. I am not saying I am a character on the level of Harry, but I could appreciate the perspective and emotions involved. I found Harry a believable and interesting character.

Mark also does a good job of pulling the reader in with the structure of the novel. The initial farcical circumstances of Harry chasing after a young women after the death of his wife play out on one level but on another Harry is simply avoiding thinking about more serious issues. Mark slowly reveals these issues to the reader as Harry comes to grips with them – or attempts to anyway – through flashbacks to his courtship and marriage of his wife. This creates a sense of tension as the reader comes to understand what really led to his wife’s tragic death and his seemingly bizarre reaction.

What is revealed is that Harry’s failure to risk confrontation with his wife – his inability to be honest with her – led to a series of deceptions and betrayals that warped his marriage and his life. Harry will do almost anything to avoid facing up to this but finds that starting all over isn’t as easy as it seems. “Harry, Revised” simply won’t work without a fuller understanding and reckoning with the Harry that brought him to this place.

To me the novel gained in strength as it progressed. I found the last third particularly moving. I stayed up late one night furtively reading to get to the end. As Harry fully came to grips with his life and his role in its collapse some of the busyness and slapstick fell away and this brought clarity and focus. The ending was a moving exploration of grief and loss; of the danger of deception, particularly self-deception; of how relationships can become broken without honest communication and openness. It was also a compelling read.

For me, the style was less and less important as the characters and the story played out. Sure, there were times when the prose could make you cringe – it could also make you laugh out loud – but to focus too much on the syntax would be to miss the larger picture; to miss the forest for the trees as the cliche goes.

I found Harry, Revised to be an entertaining, thought provoking, and moving first novel; full of over-the-top humor at times and yet also containing deep emotions. I have to agree with the critic who noted “there may be legions of writers spurned by his blog just willing for Sarvas to fail, this is a self-assured, comic and satisfying story.”

Maybe Mark should do what conservatives have been doing for some time: wear the criticisms of the New York Times as a badge of honor.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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