The Deadwood Beetle by Mylene Dressler

This wise and gorgeously wrought novel The Deadwood Beetle (Blue Hen Trade, 256 pages) had me by the heart from its first sentence. Tristan Martens, a retired entomologist in his seventies, has discovered by accident the blackened pine sewing table once owned by his mother in the Nazi occupied Netherlands. As he recognizes it in the New York antique shop – “this ghost, this small, lost thing, floating like a piece of impossible wreckage toward me” – he knows he must possess it to keep its secret from the world. The owner Cora Lowenstein, who has misinterpreted the childlike scrawl on the table’s underside, stands in his way. The table is not for sale. And so Tristan begins to scheme in his careful but ultimately clumsy way to persuade her otherwise.

Dressler is a skilled novelist with a flair for language and storytelling. The voice of Tristan is so authentic and honest that I can’t imagine any reader emerging from this tale without a deep affection for him. As he struggles with guilt, his grown and unyielding son, the stirrings of love, and his mortality, we come to understand that a seemingly simple life is not necessarily so. His last graduate student Elida periodically bursts into his apartment, urging him to leave his boxes of dead beetles to get out more, but we already know Tristan has done and seen more than she has (though Elida, too, has her demons.)

THE DEADWOOD BEETLE is one of those books that lingers in the imagination long after its reading. You won’t regret a minute spent with this author and her extraordinary novel.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann, author of Trutor and the Balloonist (1997) and Captivity (2008).

excerpt

When I first found my mother’s battered little sewing table–or rather, first asked the silver-haired woman who managed the antiques store, or rather that section of the tenth floor with its expensive, museum-quality French Provincials, near the back of a building on West Twenty-fifth Street, in a room lit by pools of halogen light, what exactly the homely little table was, and what on earth it was doing there, tucked in among all the grand buffets and elegant secrétaires–I was careful to keep my damp hands very still, and to look down puzzled and unrecognizing at it, blinking from under my homburg, to make clear I was stunned only that she would have anything so ordinary, so obviously anachronistic and anonymous and crude and utterly out of keeping with the rest of her very fine and select trade.

I had just come up out of the street from one of my walks. I’d only wanted to get out of the sun for a moment, to shift the weight in my canvas grocery bag, and so I had browsed up the floors of the building without thinking. I went into the shop–Lowenstein’s Fine Antiques and Reproductions–for no better reason than that for the moment it had seemed empty of customers. And then, at the end of an aisle cluttered with glassy armoires and spindle-legged vanities, dancing under my septuagenarian’s eyes and those fixed, spotted lights, I saw–when I looked again I couldn’t mistake it–this ghost, this small, lost thing, floating like a piece of impossible wreckage toward me.

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