This summer Ravenna Press will publish Frank Lentricchia's new novel, The Book of Ruth. The excerpt that follows is taken from near the end, when Ruth Cohen has returned to live in her husband's vanishing Italian-American neighborhood, in the very house where he was raised. Ruth is a photographer who has recently returned from Baghdad, and a photo shoot of Saddam Hussein in the months just prior to the second Gulf War. Her husband, an obscure, commercially-failed novelist -- the "he," "him," and "Lucky" she thinks about -- has disappeared in Baghdad and is presumed dead.
In the summer of 2004 -- 14 years, almost to the day, since she first moved to the house on Mary Street -- she inhabits it once more, in his space now, on the second floor, waiting for the ghost who would answer the question he could not answer in life, when they strolled on Mary Street, 14 years ago: "Will I be afraid?"
The resurgence of interest in her work is marked daily now by the thud of heavy packages hitting the porch below, as the mailman drops armfuls of what can't be stuffed into the box. Yesterday he'd let sail from the curb. How the house shook! Books from everywhere in the States and abroad, mailed in care of her publisher, or former agent, who forward them to Utica. Obscure novelists, self-published memoirists, crank historians of the Middle East, small press lyric poets, the occasional literary scholar -- all wanting to say how moved they were by Cuban Stories, how stunned by the photos of Saddam, how much they admire. Needing her to see their work (see me!) and perhaps write a brief note of acknowledgement, hoping that she'd experience a shock of recognition and assure them of their own ultimate value in the larger scheme of things, in the longed for appreciation of future generations. Think of Melville, she might say. Keep Melville always in mind.
Every 2 weeks she sends them, these unbidden gifts unread, to the underfunded public library, where they are promptly sold to a used book dealer for 25 cents each, who cannot sell them for 50 cents each, who deposits them, quite gently, in the city dump. Melville died in bitter obscurity, she might tell them, just as you will. For Melville's sake, and yours, we believe in the life to come.
The sounds of the porch below, at mail time, are the sounds of desire. Does he hear them? Lucky's work at last getting known. Does he weep for joy?
Today, a book from a photographer whose work she respects. Shots of nuclear sites in the American West. Ruth is absorbed, especially by this one -- a vast flat, northwest of Las Vegas, bordered by 2 mountains named Skull and Little Skull. In the foreground: stubs of evaporated towers of concrete and steel, sand fused into glimmering glass by explosions whose centers were many thousands of times hotter than the surface of the sun. And in the middle and far distance, a prospect, somehow tranquil, of blackened soil peppered by Joshua Trees, re-emergent under desert haze and a pleasantly indifferent sky of baby blue. The photographer's notes tell her that Russian thistle (did he make it up?) thrives in the disturbed soil and that the site is known as Jackass Flats.
She looks up and says aloud, smiling, Do my ears grow long? She touches them, tugs gently, but the ghost will not respond. Recalls another photo, a favorite, in one of her dusty geological texts, of a 30 year old, wind-stunted limber pine, high up on a granite mountain dome in Wyoming, emerged from a tiny crevice, creeping a distance of 23 feet over the granite, and never rising more than 13 inches in height.
Sounds of a creaking wheelbarrow, the chatter of those happy Russians working the back garden. They promise tomatoes in August. Soon she must plant bulbs of Autumn Crocus, so that she'll have white flowers out front in late September, just as they had always fronted the cabins at 9th Lake, when the cold started to come on implacably. Autumn, he said, was the best time for his unavailable father. Time of the Fall Classic, when his father would say, "I have to discuss the World Series with my son."
She tiptoes onto the small back porch, gently opening and shutting the door: to peek down on the Russians digging in the garden and gaze down the backyards of Mary Street -- imagining what he'd told her used to be. Clotheslines of vivid display, gardens and grape trellises as far as the eye could see, and The Tree, most of all the massive cherry tree of old Gregorio Spina, looming over the neighborhood like a guardian angel -- gone, cut down by his Alderman grandson who blacktopped the backyard, the driveway, cut down the 2 maples in the front and blacktopped the strip of dirt between the sidewalk and street, where the maples once stood, in a line with the canopy of elms and chestnut trees of the 1300 block. All gone to blacktop. Aleksey and Natasha will maybe put these third generation aliens back in touch. A project of ethnic renewal. And should they fail? Eventually, Lucky said, the Bosnians are the saviors of lower East Utica. And if not the Bosnians, then the Vietnamese. And if not the Vietnamese? Some new group, some influx at sometime will eventually satisfy our nostalgia. They'll start in the corner of a yard, with the refuse heap of old kettles, old bottles, old rags, old iron -- it'll start there. They will prove, Ruth, that in such foulness nostalgia ceases to look back and finds hope for the future.
In Winter, alone, and through early Spring at 9th Lake, she'd let herself go. Had eaten too little, and badly, and lost weight. Her hair, always kept short, had grown to the shoulder.
One morning, on this street where she knows no one, strolling east toward St. Anthony Street, she notices a sign in a window: ANGIE'S HOME BEAUTY PARLOR. Knocks on the door and is greeted by Angie herself, who cuts her hair. And because Ruth is new to the neighborhood, Angie offers a manicure gratis. Ruth -- who's never had one -- accepts. Angie tells her that long ago there was another Angie who ran a beauty parlor in this very house, but her husband didn't go for it because the stink of permanents disgusted him, not to mention the hair on the floor in his kitchen. He was a stickler for sanitation. When they started to undergo marital discord, Angie decided to close the shop to smooth it out and not too long after they moved to Florida, where she wasn't too happy, but what could she do? He wanted Florida, which I could never see the allure. Angie's husband was a very good man, except when he showed his dictatorial streak. I'm telling you this story because you remind me of her a lot. Mind telling me your name, dear? Ruth said, Angie. Then Angie said, For God sakes I knew there was a reason you reminded me of her, and you'd remind me more if you kept your hair in a long style and put on a few, you really should, you know, because you got a hell of a frame that could accept it nicely.
Thereafter, whenever Ruth met anyone in the neighborhood, she'd tell them her name was Angie. The ancient ones of Mary Street, hard of hearing, called her Ann, which she also enjoyed. And she let her hair grow to the shoulder again, which Angie the beautician preferred. Because the longer the better. Just like original Angie, said Angie. As was recommended, she put on a few and got back to her normal weight, and then she kept right on going. Ten more to be exact. The original Angie wore glasses, dear, and had a beautiful smile which you do too. But she smiled more than you. No offense. The optometrist insisted Ruth didn't need glasses, but she got them anyway.
She felt that she was acquiring some background. Some character. She was definitely filling out. The smiles come more frequently now, especially as she feeds the feral cat that haunts her back porch.