I was sixteen when I first discovered Tagliatti, coming across some reproductions of his paintings in an art magazine at my English boarding school. I can remember the grained reading-room table, smell its sour varnish, feel the irk of the school uniform as I leafed through the tedium of Bond Street galleries until, as I turned a page, there they were. Two New York scenes and an adobe house with figure. I stared at them, impaled by their directness. They seemed so brazenly addressed to me it was unthinkable to let anyone else see them. I tore them out at once. For weeks until the end of term I visited those reproductions daily, furtively, my life centering around them as some of the other girls' lives centered around a teacher they had a secret crush on.
Jane Claire is entranced by the artist Paul Tagliatti, both the man himself and his work. Paul died at the age of 34, shot in the face during a brawl with a drunken Mexican south of the border, and like so many artists he left the world before the world found him. Tagliatti's name now holds the same weight as Van Gogh or Vermeer: powerful enough to host a gallery all on its own, and draw crowds from around the world.
While visiting a New York gallery holding a Tagliatti exhibition, Jane runs into a man named Wexford Bone. Bone, like Claire, is enchanted with Tagliatti, and actually met the man before his untimely demise, but unlike Jane he has money to burn in the art collecting circuit. All the works exhibited in the gallery are on loan from his private collection -- Bone is an obsessive completionist, and Tagliatti is his Dulcinea.
Using the vast resources at his disposal, Bone has discovered discrepancies in the historical record, dates and locations of Tagliatti's artwork which do not seem to correspond to the times and places Tagliatti is known to have been. Having found a woman just as obsessed with the artist as he is, Bone hires Claire to be his personal investigator, to travel the world and interview anyone still alive who might remember Tagliatti, and who might be able to correct the inaccuracies. For two hundred dollars a week plus travel expenses, the opportunity to research more into the life of the artist she has fallen in love with seems too good to be true.
As her investigations take her globe-hopping from the United States to France, London, and Mexico, and she interviews Paul's contemporaries, Claire learns that there are eight Tagliatti paintings still unaccounted for, and Wexford Bone is not the only one willing to go to any lengths, including murder, to uncover their whereabouts.
Ho. Lee. Shit.
Imagine The Da Vinci Code stripped of Brown's extraneous meanderings through conspiracy and his encyclopedic recitations of symbolism, excised of its religious and political philosophy, where art and artist are the sole focus of the mystery, delivered in a casual, almost stream-of-consciousness first-person style with a female lead who is courageous, intelligent, and tougher than she looks, slimmed down to 220 pages of no-filler prose with the sort of kick-in-the-balls ending it's almost impossible to find in a thriller these days.
That's my first impression of Survivor. The only thing is, Survivor was written almost thirty years before The Da Vinci Code, and has been out of print since before I was born. How such a crime was allowed to be perpetrated is beyond me, but if this review goes even a step towards helping the world re-discover this book, my work here will not have been in vain.
Survivor is that damn good.
Jane Claire is a compelling narrator, perfect in her imperfections, a smart young woman drawn into what starts as a simple dream job that quickly turns into a nightmare. But more compelling than Claire is the character of Paul Tagliatti, a figure who emerges painfully, inch by agonizing inch, from this story's womb under Brandel's carefully guided delivery. Tagliatti is a wanderer, a bohemian, an artist whose one true desire in life is to be the artist he knows he can be, to achieve some degree of fame, to be recognized for his talent and contribution to the scene without being tied to any one person or place. He is in love, first and foremost, with art for art's sake, and the indignities he suffers for this over nearly two decades of wandering through first a Depression-touched, and later war-torn, world are heart-breaking.
But there's a twist to Tagliatti's tale, a secret Wexford Bone has not shared with Claire, which only begins to unravel as she gets closer and closer to the missing artwork and people start dying. Why would anyone be willing to commit murder over eight paintings of a man who died so young? Are they the keys to a hidden fortune, a cypher in a puzzle yet to be decoded, depictions perhaps of people who were not what they seemed and who hid behind a layer of deception which Tagliatti was somehow able to see beneath and capture?
Like I said, there's no Da Vinci Code bullshit going on. Tagliatti's work will not upend history as we know it, or cast some new light on a powerful group of international bankers, intelligence services, or religious organizations. At the heart of the story are three characters (Claire, Bone, and Tagliatti himself), who all want to see the painter's works survive obscurity. But they all want (or wanted) that for different reasons, and its the collision of those reasons which results in that knife-twisting, slap-the-cataracts-from-your-eyes ending which still has me reeling a day later.
It also contains a passage which made me absolutely lose my shit with laughter, which I am going to reproduce here, because this is my review, and I can do what I want. Jane is interviewing a former guard at an immigration detention facility where Paul was held for several months on suspicion of being a deserter in World War II. She shows the man a picture of Paul, and the result is not what she, or the reader, expects:
Hogan had seen a lot of prisoners in forty years. Their faces were not what had remained in his memory.
"Ass holes," Hogan told me. "I seen more ass holes than any other man in the United States. Of course, that was my special job, being in charge of admissions. Every time a new man came in on my floor, or one of the prisoners was taken to court or somewhere. Every time he came back, that was my job. I didn't have to touch them. We weren't supposed to handle the prisoners anyway unless one of them was violent. I just used my flashlight."
I said I thought that was very interesting. I tried to get him back onto the more general subject of the house of detention, the war years.
"Louis Lepke. Brenner, the spy. Of course, Brenner wasn't as famous as Lepke. They didn't give spies much publicity in wartime. But he went to the chair too. And those four Nazi saboteurs. They did. All those fellows that were electrocuted. A lot of them are still famous today. I seen all their ass holes. Dozens of times."
I wasn't lying. It was interesting in a way, the thought of Hogan sitting there alone, hour after hour, remembering his unique relationship with the condemned.
Ah, Jane, if only you'd had a picture of Paul's posterior... :D
This book was rave-blurbed to hell and back by every review publication of the day: Kirkus, Cleveland Plain Dealer, the LA Times, the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune. It deserves every last accolade and then some. Copies are cheap -- track one down online, read it, and thank me later.
Can somebody please get Marc Brandel back in print?