[ Read an excerpt from “The Vixen.” ]
The hero, Simon Putnam, is a very Francine Prose protagonist: smart guy, in love with a good sentence, disappointed in himself for excellent reasons and barely understanding what he’s doing, tripping over cobblestone after cobblestone of ambition (very big), conscience (smallish and late-blooming), desires of all kinds and uncomfortable self-awareness. He is hired by the fancy publishers, despite (and, it turns out, in part because of) his Jewishness and despite (and, it turns out, in part because of) his inexperience as an editor, to improve the “style” and the sentences of the terrible book, which the publisher knows is terrible.
Putnam’s job is to make the leering, dementedly right-wing book (whose “excerpts” are one of the memorable joys of Prose’s novel) into an international best seller for Landry, Landry, etc., which suffers financially as a dedicated publisher of highbrow stuff — just as true in the 1950s as today, evidently. Putnam takes on the job to prove himself, to ingratiate himself and to win the approval of two mentors, one avuncular and venal, the other, an actual uncle and sadistic. He also seeks the approval and loving attention of two women, one a manic pixie who is the alleged author of the terrible book and the other, Landry’s publicity director, a woman so “warm and thoughtful and kind,” so “bubbly and forgiving” — the exact dream girl for a certain kind of man — that I wanted to scream at Putnam to run away the moment she appeared to share her delicious mac and cheese with him.
The Rosenbergs were executed the day after I was born, June 19, 1953. My parents were staunchly (a little understatement here) anti-informant, anti-blacklist and equally anti-Stalinist (Trotsky was not condemned). None of this meant anything to me, but I do remember the pictures of Ethel Rosenberg because she looked like most of the middle-aged women in my family: big dark eyes, on the short side, carrying a large handbag and built like a matzo ball. Turning a woman like that, whether Ethel Rosenberg or my Aunt Frieda, into a wild sexpot — in any book — takes wit and imagination, sharp art and some real chutzpah.
In “Guided Tours of Hell,” Prose wrote: “We don’t know what we’d do. Nobody knows what accident of fate or DNA or character will determine how we act” when things are blowing up all around us. This is not only true in life, it seems to be a touchstone in most of Prose’s novels, including this one.
The last third of “The Vixen” is all twists and turns, leading to an ending of Shakespearean comedy, featuring reunion and forgiveness and writerly revenge (meaning the kind of revenge only a writer would want to take). Simon Putnam, gifted with the last name of a Mayflower Pilgrim by a fun-loving official at Ellis Island, gifted with blond hair and blue eyes (Prose, like every Jewish writer including me, references Cossacks riding through the ancestors’ village) and further gifted with a scholarship to Harvard, comes to see that his Coney Island upbringing, with his devoted, hard-working, loving parents, is more of a gift than those other things. As he comes to unthread the rude eye of rebellion and return to the haimish and above all decent heart of his Brooklyn family, Putnam finds his way.