Mystic Pig - Richard Katrovas

Oleander Press, £10.95, 217 pages, SB

Bite size: Deftly delivered middle-aged ennui amidst the stately sleaze of New Orleans

Richard Katrovas is a professor of English and well established poet in his native New Orleans, yet Mystic Pig remains his first and only novel. Appearing first in 2001, the small firm which published it went bust around the time of release, and the book vanished largely without trace. Republished now by Oleander Press, does it deserve a second chance?

Mystic Pig traces two intersecting lives in the Bacchanalian sprawl of the author's home town:- jaded middle-aged white restaurateur Nathan Moore and bolshy, bright twelve year old black kid Willie Singer. The former seems to have at least a fair few things in commons with the author (mid-life Czech descended wise-guys who've spent a lot of time waiting on restaurant tables.) Grizzled cynic Nathan is apparently happily married to his second wife and on good terms with his first, a loving father to the children of both. Yet the true love of his life is neither of his spouses. First love Sandra is the eternal love, and she's still there. Subtly and silently screwed up by both this deceit and darker elements from his past, adopted Nathan starts a correspondence with his recently discovered natural mother, who castigates the emotional mess he has made with the coldly clinical eye of the academic that she is. At the same time, Nathan's relationship with local gangster Roberto Mancini starts to bring into question the future of his restaurant, the other great troubled love of his life. Meanwhile, local kid Willie Singer is being paid by a man named Bart Linsay to read him extracts from his sprawling, epic surrealist poem "Mystic Pig" before his premature death. Bart turns out to be Nathan's closest childhood friend, and from thereon the threads weave together.

Mystic Pig has an involving plot, but far more important than this, and where the book finds its strength, is in the warm, firm, lucid characterisation of its protagonists, as well as its brilliant capture of the carnival that is New Orleans, a character every bit as well-formed as the rest.

I haven't read Katrovas' poetry but the prose style has a jaggedly defined quality, a clipped lyricism, a stripped lucidity, which perfectly serves its subject matter - the dark heart of middle-aged manhood, the writhing beneath the stoic surface. This is an intensely masculine work, but one which manages to avoid the clichés and fatuities of other paeans to "manliness", capturing an unfakeable emotional honesty.

The novel is not flawless. A lengthy sub-plot concerning a schizophrenic employee of Nathan's who ventriloquizes with his penis (yes, you read that right) is nearly but not quite entertaining enough to justify the length spent on it. And while there is a highly effective narrative twist nearing the end which is truly effective and affecting, another at the very end somehow feels un-needed. There's a also little bit too much about the process of cooking for my liking. .....Yet these are trifling asides to a very finely realised work of characterisation, of Nathan, of Willie, and of New Orleans itself. "Hell is the place between words and the world" writes Bart in his eponymous poem. Mystic Pig navigates the limbos and purgatories of life to create something involving, invigorating and moving.

Any cop? Honest, lyrical, funny. Yes.

[First published on Bookmunch, 2008] Back