The Fugitives

By Christopher Sorrentino

Simon & Schuster. 322 pages. $26.

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Reviewed by John Domini


nolead ends Early in The Fugitives, Christopher Sorrentino's wild yet subtle new novel, his protagonist, Sandy Mulligan, bad-mouths the film industry. Mulligan, a novelist himself, complains of hitting the Hollywood jackpot only to be ignored. The director shrugs: "It's not a comedy."

A simple yea or nay like that may work in the Dream Factory, but it won't do for The Fugitives. Sorrentino assays a wide range of approaches, pushing envelopes of genre till his fingers poke through. His first novel in a decade - 2005's Trance made the short list for the National Book Award - indeed delivers comedy. There's romance, too, though the rating would be a hard X, and things often drop into gloom. Yet the downbeats never drag. The narrative tumbles along like a snowball, picking up a casino heist, murder after murder, and perhaps a ghost story.

By the time I finished, and did some avid rereading, a ghost was the only way I could make sense of one element. Not that this bothered me, no more than my other cavils (how did the gunman not . . . ?). The very fact that I can't reveal the details in a review underscores their innocuousness. Overall, it was a joy to watch these Fugitives scamper.

Two in particular: the New York novelist, plus a journalist out of Chicago, Kat Danhoff. The duo provide, in alternating points of view, what passes for romance. Their hookup begins with a shared kink; both are fleeing one former life by returning to another still older.

Mulligan has achieved star status, and Fugitives first succeeds in its scolding of literary culture, where "lousy books" count on "fulsome praise." But Mulligan's latest is way behind schedule, and he's lost his family after an ugly affair. So he retreats to Cherry City, a Michigan lake town, ostensibly in order to work. Yet he used to live here with his father, and the old man has just died. Grief flares up everywhere.

As for Danhoff, she's accomplished less but come further. Born an Ojibwa, Kat has used cross-cultural marriage and white-collar employment to erase her heritage. At first encounter, Mulligan takes her for "Asian," as well as "jarringly stylish." She turns out indeed unsettling, a woman who medicates her ruptured identity with coldhearted sex. One scarifying passage sketches Kat's seven recent adulteries. One was lesbian; she, too, is trying different genres. Only after the recollections sweep by, though, do we encounter a crucial word: "How Kat loved Google." Love, for these fugitives, resides not in the soul on the screen.

Still, they've come home. These days Kat's reservation has a casino, mobbed up of course. Someone's stolen a chunk of cash, and the culprit appears to be one of the wiseguys (his own ethnicity uncomplicated, "half boy, half calzone"). Yet now the man may be hanging around, close by the place he ripped off. Has Jackie Saltino, low-level hood, remade himself as Native American storyteller John Salteau?

Both names derive from the Latin for "rise," and for both lovers the man promises resurrection. To Mulligan, Salteau's fables offer "a breath of fresh air" after New York's "terminal case of Cleveritis Famosus." To Kat, Saltino's "a big story . . . that could change things," forging a sustainable connection to her past. Small wonder Mulligan admires how the storyteller makes "spirits return from the grave."

But when Mafia money goes missing, isn't the result generally the opposite? One of Kat's sources has blood on his hands, and so a novel that first skewered high culture, then unmasked love's fakery, and throughout probed after authenticity - this novel snowballs. The miracle is in how it brings this off, always articulate and closely observed. Sorrentino never shortchanges his acuity, as in a late passage about Kat, "this woman . . . who exists in a constant state of anticipation, who has never been capable of being, but only of looking forward to being."

The insight, as it happens, may be spoken by a ghost. The question's left open, and indeed the most heroic fugitive in The Fugitives may be the open-ended art of story itself, once more the shape-shifting Trickster.

John Domini's latest book is "The Sea-God's Herb." In 2016 he'll bring out a new set of stories, "MOVIEOLA!"