Following his much-celebrated debut, Horace Afoot, Frederick Reuss returns with another endearing hero. This time it's a six-year-old Gnostic with a photographic memory. Henry is being reared - at least intermittently - by gamblers, thieves, whores, and priests in one of America's most notorious sin cities. But from time to time, he seems to believe that he's living as a saint in fifth century Byzantium. As in Horace Afoot, Frederick Reuss's new novel describes the labyrinthine terrain in which we shape our identities and search for meaning. And like Horace, young henry places his questions into a distant and possibly wiser world. For some reason, the stories of ancient Byzantium help henry make sense of his absurd - and sometimes dangerous - existence. Henry of Atlantic City is an ironic, funny, and heart rending account of the ways we become our own saviors by choosing what to believe.
A wonderful foil for an uncaring world, six-year-old Henry wants to be a saint: he's read up on fifth-century Byzantium, and on the early Christian heresy called Gnosticism, and he brings his erudition to bear on sordid modern surroundings in Reuss's affecting, original second novel (after the praised Horace Afoot). Henry's father is a scheming embezzler who works as head of security at Caesar's Palace in Atlantic City. Henry's command of his favored ancient writers is abetted by Sy, his father's reluctant co-conspirator, an autodidactic blackjack dealer with his own metaphysical facility. (The Catholic priests at Henry's school show interest in his Gnosticism, too, but of course they want him to abjure it.) Some of the action in Reuss's slender plot involves the father's criminal machinations. The rest of it follows disputes over Henry's custody. He has grown up first around the casino, then temporarily with Sy's sister in Philadelphia. Placed with a foster family, the callous, duplicitous O'Briens, he tries to run away, ends up staying in St. Jude's Home for Boys and (among other misadventures) lets a gorilla out of a zoo. Reuss's mannerAa spare third-person narrative, sticking largely to terms and phrases Henry knowsAbecomes a courageously concentrated show of authorial control and tonal fidelity (though it does slip up a bit near the end). Henry's thoughts, and his speeches to other characters, mix quotes from Gnostic scriptures and Byzantine history with his questions about the mechanics of a befuddling adult world. Everything Henry sees gets a Byzantine gloss: cars can be chariots, and a tycoon Henry meets becomes the emperor Justinian. The play of past and present, heretical theology and life-experience, through Henry's consciousness yields some neat, sophisticated jokes. More often Reuss achieves a brilliant pathos, reminding us that at any age "loneliness is the most meaningless treasure in existence." (Aug.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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M P Publishing
June 11, 2001
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