Friday, September 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser

 Having been reminded of my spree of middle-aged male mid-life crisis books, I decided to read The Promise of Elsewhere: A novel by Brad Leithauser.

(An aside, why are so many novels stamped with the subtitle: “----:a novel”? )

This middle-aged protagonist, Louie Hake, is in his forties, which seems too young to be middle-aged, but his mid-life crisis is significant. He is divorcing for the second time. His wife was caught (very publicly) having an affair and ran off with her lover. Louie is an art history professor at a small liberal arts college in Ann Arbor, so he spends a good deal of his professional life explaining that he does not teach at the University of Michigan.

He is, at the same time, arrogant about his intellectualism and insecure about being a fraud. He’s also bipolar and has synesthesia. Finally, he has just received a diagnosis of a degenerative eye disease. He’s slowly going blind. So there’s a lot going on in his head.

As a way to escape from his life for awhile, he submits a plan to his department chair for a course on four great architectural masterpieces: the Pantheon in Rome, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto. He embarks on a journey to see them all. However, he gets stalled in Rome, then side-tracked to London, then side-tracked again to Greenland. Along the way, he decides to stop taking his lithium, with predictable results. He meets and spends time with a few strangers, also on journeys of self-discovery, and all their stories come out bit by bit.

Louie’s life is a mess. He’s not a likeable character or an unlikeable one. He’s just a mess, bumbling along, self-absorbed but desperate for connection. The book is sprinkled with little insights into the human condition. And many of Louie’s rants and uncharitable thoughts are funny. But in the end, there isn’t much point to Louie’s grand journey and I don’t see that there has been any real growth.

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