Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

And Speaking of Gulf Coast Art

Restoration by John Ed Bradley

Restoration has a premise so engaging that I was prepared to forgive it nearly anything after reading the jacket blurb. And when all was through, there was some forgiving to be done.

But first, the plot, which is super juicy. A Moviegoer-esque narrator named Jack Charbonnet quits his job writing for the Times-Picayune and moves into a garconniere behind a grand old rotting New Orleans mansion owned by a frail recluse. At a dinner party, Jack meets Rhys, an art restorer, and though she initially dislikes him, the two forge a tentative friendship over their shared love of obscure southern art.

When Jack's realtor discovers a previously unknown painting by a tragic and gifted New Orleans painter, Rhys is called in to restore it. At the auction, museums and private collectors come crawling out of the woodwork for a shot at getting their hands on a rare Levette Asmore. But they're no match for the rich, boarish, and none-too-subtlely named Tommy Smallwood, a holy terror at art auctions who has the charming habit of making his female companions count the slaves in large plantation paintings (he wants one with over 40).

The best parts of the book involve Jack and Rhys's search to unearth the mysteries surrounding Asmore's life and death. It turns out that Asmore's controversial and brilliant career was eclipsed by his bizarre suicide. Asmore was commissioned by the WPA in 1941 to paint a mural on the history of transportation in the United States. Instead, he created an erotic street scene that featured black and white figures dancing together. Shortly after an angry mob forced Asmore to whitewash his masterpiece, he threw himself from the Huey P. Long Bridge. The more they research, the more Jack and Rhys suspect that the mural might not have been destroyed after all, and hatch a plan to rescue it.

Still, Restoration has problems. Relationships between characters are underdeveloped, the ending is somewhat unsatisfying, and the dialogue is kind of awful - didactic, exposition-y and unrealistic. But despite these flaws, the search for Asmore's lost mural and for the details of his shadowy existence make the book worth reading.

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