Tom Rachman’s novels involve creative people, and here, in his third one, “The Italian Teacher,” we find an account sheet of the items that contribute to the costliness of great art. The collector, Rachman tells us, pays for the genius that goes into the canvases, but others must share the cost, especially if the artist is certain that the world must arrange itself around what happens in the studio.
Rachman’s genius is Bear Bavinsky, a celebrated painter who made his name in the 1950s with large oil studies of body parts (but no faces). “An oak of a man,” Bavinsky is self-indulgent and domineering, undeniably fun but fun on his own terms. He attracts women, other artists, gallery owners, hangers-on — those who want to pose for him (knees, elbows) and those who just want to bask in the light he radiates.
There is a freewheeling briskness in Rachman’s prose when he writes about Bear, a feeling that time is truncated and that things are happening fast. And Bear is funny: “What people don’t realize about me is that I boxed in college,” he tells a young woman at dinner. “Unfortunately, it was an art college.” Bear’s eye, however, is on posterity, not people, and he walks out on wives, girlfriends and children without saying goodbye.
With Bear’s charisma and cruelty as a backdrop, the focus of the novel is Bear’s “favorite” son, Charles (Pinch). As self-effacing and decent as his father is self-serving, Pinch idolizes his father. The novel is organized into “canvases,” depictions of Pinch from 1955 to 2010, as he works to position himself near his father, first by becoming a painter, then by directing himself toward an academic post in art history. Yet as his nickname implies, his hold upon his father is a tenuous one, and people he loves — not just his famous dad — slip away from him. If needy but kindhearted Pinch cannot be his father, can he discover a way to be his father’s son on his own terms?
Rachman’s ensemble of art-world characters here is luminescent; their dialogue is intelligent and so entertaining.
And while I had fears that I could see how everything would play out, Rachman manages a truly dazzling ending, one that balances one’s captivation with paint with one’s presence in the world: As Pinch works on a canvas, “he finds solidarity here, linking himself with all those quiet types who looked upon blank surfaces with expectation, those who mark objects to erase themselves, who dissolve in the bliss of work.”
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
The Italian Teacher
By: Tom Rachman.
Publisher: Viking, 341 pages, $27.