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[485] The Body of Jonah Boyd – David Leavitt

” The darkness settled. I thought about the first Thanksgiving I’d spent with the Wrights, the long night afterward during which I’d actually convinced myself that they’d invited me only to make me the subject of some strange social experiment. Now I understood that their motives for embracing me were not only more complex than I had suspected, but individual: Nancy needed me to be a failure, Ernest needed me as an alternative to Nancy . . . and now Daphne seemed to need me to be her confidante. ” (Ch.7, p.92)

Judith “Denny” Denham is not what she seems. Like most secretaries, she is overworked and underpaid, going through her career unthanked. Her physical appearance invites the assumption that she’s a sexless spinster. Who would have thought that she’s been having an affair with her boss, Dr. Ernest Wright, while maintaining a friendship with his wife. But the novel is not about the affair, and in fact much less with the professor, who is later murdered one afternoon in his office. It’s about how this curious link between literary creation and family procreation, all seen through the eyes of an outsider, the mistress, and told in acerbic tone.

The Body of Jonah Boyd revolves around the events on Thanksgiving Day in 1969 that have a crucial aftermath. Nancy Wright’s best friend Anne arrives with her new husband, Jonah Boyd, a novelist who is working on his latest novel. His notebook that contains his draft was passed along the dinner table and the novelist stuck up a friendship with the Wrights’ youngest son, a teenager aspired to be a poet, whose food phobia has been source of his mother distress. Showcased at the dinner is a glorious dysfunction that is not uncommon even in modern American family. The eldest son is absent; he fled to Canada to evade military draft. The boy-crazy daughter is preoccupied with the scheme to sneak out after dinner.

It was Ernest’s contention (which he shared only with me) that Ben suffered from an underdeveloped sense of reality. In Ernest’s view, Ben’s problem was that he lived half in a world of dreams, the border of which he could not clearly delineate; much of his bad temper and frustration, his father felt, owed to the refusal of the ‘real world (whatever that was) to conform to his wishes . . . I think it would be a mistake to understate to degree to which Nancy encouraged Ben in his delusions, if for no other reason than because they lent ballast to her own. (Ch.4, p.50)

When Boyd loses his manuscripts during the stay, the novel quickly sets into a series of twists. The slow revelation to what actually happened that day to the manuscripts takes on a mythic status that reverberates on Ben’s writing career. This novel is really about ben and all his eccentricities—and he is not a likable character to me. He is just too annoyingly weird. I’m not sure if the way Leavitt ties up the bundle at the end is ingenious as claimed by others. I just think the connection between Jonah Boyd and Ben who liked to write as a teenager is too obvious. Compared to his other works, this book is Leavitt’s lesser effort.Both plot and characters are thin.

215 pp. Bloomsbury. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]