When I started Larry Baker’s new book, Love and Other Delusions, I thought the Iowa City author had served up the missing chapter in the life of a fascinating character from two earlier novels. But after a while, I wasn’t so sure.
So when I met him in a coffee shop to talk about all four of his novels, I asked whether the Alice in the new book is the same Alice who appears in The Flamingo Rises and A Good Man.
His response was succinct: “No.”
Coaxed to elaborate, he explained that the key to Love and Other Delusions isn’t the first names, but the last. He borrowed the names Marcher and Bartram for two of his characters from Henry James’s story “A Beast in the Jungle” because his novel shares a theme: the dangers of narcissism.
Baker has been interested in the borrowing, repurposing, and juxtaposing of existing material since the beginning of his writing career. His first published short story, for example, was a rewriting of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” Baker populated his story with 19th-century American writers and borrowed lines from their work. He called the effort “an academic story,” grounded in his studies of T.S. Eliot, but it was a strategy he would revisit again.
His 2009 novel, A Good Man, took shape in his mind as the story of a “black Elmer Gantry,” a fraudulent preacher who learns he’s been preaching the truth. But a character Baker created for what he thought would be the book’s first scene—a late middle-aged, drunken DJ named Harry—soon became the novel’s focus.
Baker’s Harry Ducharme can trace his lineage to some other Harrys—singer/ songwriter Harry Chapin and a child named Harry in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The River.” The book borrows themes, plot points, characters, and even text from a variety of sources, including from Baker’s own previous work.
“I had this Nora character,” Baker said, “and I realized I was just writing a version of the Alice character [from 1997’s The Flamingo Rises], and it occurred to me: why not reference my own work?”
Doing so allowed Baker to round out a character he felt had been shortchanged during the editing of The Flamingo Rises, while continuing the stories of several others.
While the nod to James links Love and Other Delusions to some of Baker’s previous work, he told me he considers the novel “completely different from [his] other books.” And he has a point.
The Flamingo Rises is a quirky coming-of-age story. His 2005 novel, Athens, America, which is set in a sort of alternate-reality Iowa City (complicated by the inclusion of the actual Iowa City in the book), is built around local politics in a town torn apart by a controversial accident. A Good Man is engaged with questions of faith and also explores, according to Baker, “How . . . you make sense of eight years of George Bush.”
Love and Other Delusions grew out of Baker’s interest in unreliable narrators. The book features Alice and her therapist Kathy, and various chapters are related from each woman’s perspective. Alice explores her long-term affair with a younger man, and the tale makes it clear that she deeply undervalues another relationship that might have been a source of greater security and happiness.
There is a secret at the heart—or perhaps the brain—of the book that can’t be revealed here. Baker sets it up with care, and it pays off in the book’s powerful closing pages, even if the reader suspects the truth earlier on.
The book suffers just a bit from a feature common to all four novels: Baker’s tendency to spend significant swaths of prose describing his characters’ thoughts and feelings rather than allowing their actions to reveal their interior lives. The therapeutic setting of Love and Other Delusions allows for the strategy to work better than it does in the earlier work, however.
And when Baker does allow his characters to act rather than think, he delivers some excellent scenes in the new book, including a mysterious visit to St. Augustine, Florida, undertaken by Alice and Kathy, and a chapter of sexual hijinks—much more explicit than anything that appears in his earlier work—of which Baker is clearly very proud.
Baker calls the new book his “most adult,” and he isn’t just referring to the sex. Love and Other Delusions explores self-destructive behavior in a manner both dark and disturbing. It is not my favorite of his four novels—that honor goes to Athens, America—but it is certainly an engaging read that may surprise those familiar with Baker’s previous work. n
Larry Baker reads May 9, 2012, at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.