Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Little Book

The Little Book
by Selden Edwards
Recommended Ages: 15+

Wheeler Burden has been a baseball phenomenon, a Harvard dropout, a 1960s rock star, the heir of a fabulous fortune, and the editor of a beloved prep-school don's book about fin de si├Ęcle Vienna. He carries the heritage of an American World War II hero, celebrated for dying under Gestapo torture rather than betraying intelligence about the Normandy invasion, and of an Anglo-Jewish pacifist whose book helped spawn the modern feminist movement. The love of his life, so far, has been an adulterous affair with a federal judge's dying wife. Then one night in 1988 San Francisco, while staring down the barrel of an assassin's gun, he masters one more amazing skill: time travel.

As this book begins, Wheeler finds himself walking along Vienna's Ringstrasse in the year 1897. As he figures out what to do with himself at that remarkable turning point in cultural history - on the very cusp of modern times - he finds himself surrounded by Jung Wien intellectuals. He encounters figures like Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, and Mark Twain. He discovers what he would really do if given a chance to rub out a then-8-year-old Adolf Hitler. He makes a mortal enemy of a certain man, and falls deeply in love with a certain woman, whose destiny is crucial for his personal existence. And he meets the one man who can truly explain why - though not how - he was drawn to this particular time and place.

This book contains a lot of the predictable trappings of a time-travel fantasy - concerns about changing history, erasing oneself from existence, etc. It has a somewhat unexpected twist on the reason "I'm My Own Grampaw" so often plays as an undeclared theme of such adventures. It weaves authentic history into its plot in a way that raises the stakes both philosophically and dramatically. It depicts passionate romance, touching family relationships, mind-bending discoveries, the apex of a culture tipping from grandeur toward disaster, and the bittersweet possibility of just a touch of redemption.

Perhaps just a little less to my liking, it also seems to serve at times as a tract for the cult of Freudian psychoanalysis and the permissive sexual revolution that bloomed in the generation of the flower children. It tries to eke comfort from the fatalistic, if not nihilistic, idea of being trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth, along with deceptively shallow meditations on "the connectedness of all things," etc. And a seemingly promising plot line about the alternative history of the frisbee goes nowhere. It is one of those books you admire not because it makes you feel good, but because it leaves you in a mucusy heap of emotional wreckage. It stimulates your imagination and challenges you to guess how it will all come together before, at last, it all comes apart.

More than 40 years in the writing, this is the debut novel by a sometime teacher whose life, and the lives of some of friends, provided some of its material. There is already a sequel, The Lost Prince. This review is based on the Penguin Audio edition read by Jeff Woodman - who, for what it's worth, is a wonderful actor with an awful German accent.

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