Poetic novella aches with desire, despair

By Joseph Peschel
May 31, 2011

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Paul Lisicky, a New Jersey native who teaches at New York University, is the author of the novel “Lawnboy’’ and the memoir “Famous Builder.’’ His new novella, “The Burning House,’’ set unsurprisingly in New Jersey, is an extraordinary fiction in that it sustains a believable poetic voice throughout. That’s no small feat, since Lisicky must convince the reader that narrator Isidore Mirsky, an artistic, college-educated, unemployed jack-of-all-trades, has not only the soul but the voice of a poet. We hear that voice right away, as this quiet book of desire and self-discovery opens with a paragraph originally published as a prose poem that begins:

“The rising seas, the sinking lawn: none of that bothered me tonight. Laura’s health and mind shifting like water.’’

Isidore, 32, his wife, Laura, and her younger sister Joan live in a fine house in the fictional town of Lumina, on a Jersey bay. Laura and Joan’s mother drowned and left the house to Laura. The three are close. Isidore has always loved Joan and often sees aspects of his wife in her. Yet, he knows things will never be the same after Laura invites Joan to live with them. All three burn with desire, grief, despair, and periodically, with the actual fever of sickness. All three have been beaten down in some way or another.

Isidore’s a decent fellow who tries to do more good than bad, but he’s had a string of failures, lost jobs, wrecked cars. He’s athletic, smart, but directionless. He loves working on cars and has had several menial jobs in the past, but he can’t do anything strenuous now because of a broken hand. He often wakes up with a feeling of despair — “those drumming words: you’ll never do it, you’ll never do it, you’ll never do it.’’ Despite losing her mother, Laura seems better off than her husband. Still, she suffers from an unknown disease, which may have prevented her from having children. Of the three, Joan has had the roughest life, and her mother’s death has been hardest on her: Isidore overhears her talking to her dead mother. Joan has also lost her business, her apartment, and her boyfriend in the past six months. Despite those losses, she is optimistic and still believes life could change for the better.

Their common enemy is a new housing development where builders are replacing older homes with townhouses, “the delights of Lumina were being harvested by sharks.’’ Of the three, Joan is the most active in trying to thwart the sharks, which becomes a major plotline. Joan addresses Lumina’s planning board, while Isidore and Laura support her.

Isidore is no angel: He has a sometime lover, Janet, and he finds it unusually easy to lie. Eventually, Isidore regains some self-esteem after being handed a job managing properties on the bay. But throughout the story, he’s troubled by his own failures and conflicted by his love for Joan and Laura and wonders whether it’s “possible to love two people, wholly, equally, at once.’’

Inner conflict, love, and despair all manifest themselves as brightness, fire, or a burning of some sort in this township called Lumina. The metaphors all seem apt whether they portray love — “burning up inside the body that enclosed him’’ — or the fever of influenza as a punishment for a man “a little sick in both body and brain.’’ Lisicky says that many of his shorter prose pieces “want to move and think like poems.’’ And it’s unsurprising that Lisicky’s longer prose piece, though a tad hyperbolic in spots, often feels like a long, beautiful narrative poem about what it is to be flawed and human in a world that often seems, at best, indifferent.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@joseph


Etruscan, 160 pp., paperback, $14.95