In the uneven course of this ambitious first novel, some 29 people fall madly in love with its scathing, sullen, yet sensitive wunderkind artist hero, including all 24 narrators and both authors, but not including at least one reader and reviewer. If you don’t feel overwhelmed reading Boone, you will at least feel outnumbered. Two authors are company, but 24 narrators are a crowd.
The model for Boone is the oral collage biography, notably Edie (1982), in which George Plimpton and Jean Stein told the pathetic riches-to-rags story of Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol’s sacrificial sheep, through the taped recollections of dozens of people who knew her. Like Edie, Boone is the tale of a meteoric, self-destructive career in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but we are meant to take more than a lurid interest in the fictional Eton Boone’s brief trajectory. We are meant to stand in awe. For Boone is a familiar cultural icon, the misunderstood young genius, the poete maudit, the tormented creative soul, the artist with entrails on exhibit. He is a combination of Arthur Rimbaud, Holden Caulfield, and Lenny Bruce.
Unfortunately for the novel, he is also pretty much a cliché, with disheveled hair and an abrupt, brooding manner. After displaying some preliminary brilliance as a painter and actor, he becomes a cult figure by doing intense, stiletto-sharp impersonations of celebrities — Jack Kerouac, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Burton, assorted doomed rock stars — at a New York comedy club. He goes on to direct a stunning cinema verite film about Beethoven and to perform wonders as a playwright, novelist, and all-around sensitive soul. Just as you begin to steel yourself for his stints as an interior decorator and operatic tenor, he gets run over by a truck. But he has already been considerably flattened by the generous samples of his work that the novel supplies — transcripts of performances, letters, an entire short story. The impersonations are shrewd; I particularly liked the one of Hugh Hefner, trying to fend off time and finally preferring the photographs of women to the women themselves. The letters and short story are insufferably precious. All fail to live up to the thunderstruck murmuring of the unanimously smitten chorus of narrators, who go on and on about Boone’s transcendent smoldering genius.
The voices — young and old, profane and genteel, American and British — do ring true. They maunder on conceitedly as people will do with tape recorders running (”Peter was so Peter. Peter was so there, and solid, and so being Peter at all times, but Eton it was more a matter of trying to find”). The method almost makes up in authenticity what it lacks in narrative momentum. If only these people weren’t quite so easily captivated by Boone. All ages and both sexes find him irresistible, and when gratuitously nasty, he is quickly , forgiven. Most tortured artistic geniuses don’t have it so good. Boone begins to look suspiciously like a pet fantasy of our two clever, talented 25-year- old authors. He is too revered to be true. I could hardly wait for that truck to arrive. C