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BOOK REVIEW

A ′50s literary mystery in ‘The Vixen’

Author Francine Prose.
Author Francine Prose.

Francine Prose’s latest novel is a story within a story, a literary whodunit where the crime is against integrity. It is witty, recursive, and complex — one could say meta — but also heartfelt. Sincerity has rarely been this much fun.

The Vixen” opens with the televised news coverage of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. Simon Putnam is watching the family’s console TV with his parents. A freshly minted Harvard graduate, he has been rejected in his grad-school application to study Old Norse Literature by the University of Chicago.

In his family’s cramped Brooklyn apartment, Simon’s feelings of personal failure are amplified. He laments: “Watching TV tonight with my parents is my vocation, the job I was born to do.”

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His Ivy League degree and arcane field of study place him at a remove from the parents he loves and admires. His mother teaches high school American history; his father manages a sporting goods store.

His parents are cultural Jews and Roosevelt-style Democrats horrified at the execution of the Rosenbergs as Soviet spies. Simon’s mother grew up in the same Lower East Side tenement as Ethel and attended high school with her. Distraught at her former classmate’s fate, she has created a small shrine of pictures of Ethel in their living room.

Weirdly, the first book Simon is asked to edit when he lands a job as a junior assistant editor at a major publishing house is a lightly camouflaged trashy novel about the Rosenbergs. In it, Ethel is portrayed as promiscuous and without scruples.

Simon’s mother engineered this entry-level job for her son at the publisher Landry, Landry and Bartlett through her brother-in-law, a respected critic and “public intellectual.” Uncle Madison has masterfully distanced himself from his roots, and Simon would also like to leave his Coney Island background behind. He is in awe of WASP-y Warren Landry, the publisher’s charismatic head, just as he had been of the Harvard professor who instilled in him a love of Norse mythology and folktales.

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Warren Landry tells Simon “The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic” is a one-off assignment, a cheap bodice-ripper intended to salvage the failing finances of the once august publishing firm. What distresses Simon more than the bad quality of the writing is the “commodification of Ethel’s tragedy.”

The putative author of this potboiler is one Anya Partridge. When Warren’s driver takes Simon for his first editorial meeting to what he thinks will be her family’s estate, they drive up to a luxurious mental institution. Anya seems indifferent to suggested edits to the manuscript. She wears a fur pelt, just like Esther Rosenstein, the stand-in for Ethel Rosenberg in the manuscript — invented life imitating fictive art.

Narrating the book from the vantage point of later adulthood, Simon observes about the ′50s fad of fur stoles: “Even then, it was a statement about fashion and cruelty, a misguided mash-up of glamour, sex, and death.”

This novel completely captures the flannel suit decade: the magnification of powerful men like Warren Landry in office culture, where casual appraisals are made of women’s bodies; the crushing conformity, which might make a character like Simon want to say he’s from Manhattan rather than Coney Island; and the chilling fear felt during the Cold War and the Red Scare, translated into reality in the form of a bully from Wisconsin.

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Of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Simon observes: “His investigations are the Salem witch trials all over again, this time run by a fat old drunk instead of crazy girls.”

When Anya suggests on their first meeting that they step out of the institution, Simon is surprised at her freedom, but then suggests they go to Coney Island: “All the people from whom I’d hidden my origins . . . seemed, compared to Anya, pallid, pretentious, judgmental.”

He is proud to be recognized as a regular rider of the Cyclone, “a vintage roller coaster with a sketchy safety record.”

The controlled chaos of the amusement ride he loves is nothing compared to the chaos Simon discovers as he attempts to work with Anya on her manuscript, to make it less offensive in both prose and politics. The innocent Simon is educated in sex by Anya, but is deluded by her, just as he is betrayed by the powerful men he has attempted to emulate.

The professor he reveres from Harvard says in one of his early lectures: “The most important and overlooked difference between people and animals is the desire for revenge.”

Simon’s ultimate revenge is artful, in all senses of the word.

Francine Prose has explored political themes in many of her novels. In her Dayton Literary Peace Prize-winning novel, “A Changed Man,” she creates a character who transforms from a member of the Aryan Resistance Movement into a decent, redeemed, and recovered person. In “The Vixen,” sincere Simon is seasoned by experience, not changing who he is, but becoming more himself, someone not interested in disguising his background, but reclaiming it. If this novel’s ending seems too tidily wrapped up, and it does, it’s a small misstep in this accomplished work of fiction.

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This is a sly, smart, caperish literary novel about a pulpy novel about a historical moment, re-creating the America of the 1950s in all its glittering fakery, conformity, and cruelty.

THE VIXEN

By Francine Prose

Harper, 336 pp., $25.99

Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book critic.