Imagine, if you will, a cocktail party attended by the greats of American literature. Washington Irving is there, asleep under a tree, perhaps. Emily Dickinson is busy being nobody in a corner somewhere. And Mark Twain is regaling a crowd of admirers, including Ernest Hemingway, with tales of the mighty Mississippi when in walks J.M. Tohline looking for Edgar Allan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who are both boozing it up on opposite ends of the room.
“Excuse me, Mr. Fitzgerald,” says Tohline . “Do you mind if I call you F?”
“That depends,” slurs Fitzgerald. “Do you mind if I call you J?”
“As in Gatsby?” says Tohline.
Fitzgerald stares at him, unblinking.
“Anyway,” says Tohline, “I was wondering if you’d mind having your photo taken with me and Edgar Allan Poe.”
Tohline nods in Poe’s direction. For reasons unexplained, Poe is asking where the nearest polling station might be found. He’s been promised a drink, Poe is in the middle of explaining as an old-timey photographer sets up his equipment and Tohline positions himself squarely between his literary heroes, an arm draped proudly over the shoulders of each.
“Hold still,” says the photographer as the flash powder goes up in a puff of smoke.
And out of the camera comes a sepia-toned Polaroid (don’t ask, just go with it, but if you insist, would you buy that the photographer’s into steampunk?) of an incongruous pair forced together by fate and the wide-eyed admiration of a heretofore unknown debut novelist.
Such is the effect, more or less, of reading Tohline’s The Great Lenore, a novel that, as the name suggests (and as my perhaps overwrought introductory remarks should make clear) takes its inspiration from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Poe’s “Lenore” and “The Raven.” Given the stature of the company that Tohline has chosen to keep, the author holds his own remarkably well.
The narrative follows the efforts of a struggling writer to get started on his second novel while simultaneously dealing with the comings and goings of the incredibly rich (and incredibly idiosyncratic) family living next door to his borrowed Nantucket estate. Things take a turn for the worse when a member of the family — the young, impossibly beautiful and equally charming Lenore — dies in a plane crash, and then a turn for the weird when (no spoilers here, as the twist is revealed on page one) she shows up one rainy night alive and well.
Complicating matters even further is the fact that a non-moneyed interloper name name Jez (perhaps pronounced Jay, if we give it a French twist?) is in love with Lenore despite her marriage to the uber-moneyed Chas Montana. The result is a tale of doomed romance with a Gothic twist — Gatsby on absinthe, as it were.
What makes the novel especially fun to read is watching Tohline weave the two strands of his narrative together in a way that’s strikingly contemporary. The Gatsby touches, for example, range from the subtle detail of untouched books in the family library to the borderline plagiarism of the concluding pages; compare Fitzgerald’s “we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—” to Tohline’s “We will run with heads held high, arms stretched farther… forever believing that someday—.”
Which isn’t a bad thing.
If imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery, then Tohline’s borrowing — some might say “riffing” — isn’t a bad thing at all. The novel is Tohline’s homage to his literary heroes and, as an author, he has the good sense to steal from the best. What’s more, he brings enough of his own imagination to the table to make The Great Lenore entirely his own.
A tribute. A riff. An homage. A mash-up.
Whatever you decide to call it, The Great Lenore is, in the final analysis, a page-turner that introduces the literary world to an author with a clear and profound appreciation for the American literary canon.
– Review by Marc Schuster