Emma Who Saved My Life by Wilton Barnhardt

emmaEvery once in a while a reviewer receives a book he puts on the shelf and just wishes it would go away. Emma Who Saved My Life (St Martin’s, 496 pages) is that kind of book.

Cursed with what is arguable the worst title ever given a novel ( and double-cursed with a depressingly ugly dust jacket), it had press releases that touted it with superlatives that would make Gore Vidal blush. It’s in the fist person and has one of those woesome post-adolescent narrators. Worse, it’s a first novel by a guy named Wilton who is at Oxford working on a doctoral thesis about Henry James.

Eventually I opened it and started reading with a promise to break off after the first chapter (or 10 minutes) and go mow the lawn. When I reached Page 75 I realized that I hadn’t been counting either chapters or time but was totally caught up in this stunning, witty story of a young man’s attempt to become a New York actor.

This is a brilliant, entertaining, compelling, fascinating novel.

Emma Who Save My Life is about more than a young man’s coming of age. It is about New York as it emerged from the ’60s and evolved itself into the “dump” of the ’80s, a parody of its former self, a haven for yuppie suburbanites who want to remain on the new, improved and HUD-remodeled island. It is about a New York that Neil Simon and Woody Allen, E.L. Doctorow and Joseph Heller have tried to capture time and again but have never quite gotten right.

By extension, it is a novel about America in the Nixon-Reagon years, when presidents were selected for their “entertainment value,” and when rents went from $150 a month for a Village sublet to $1,000 for a one-room, 5th floor walk-up.

It’s also a novel about the theater — the New York Broadway Great White Way Theater — and about ambition, dreams, art.

Finally, however, and most importantly, Emma Who Saved My Life is a funny and at the same time sad novel about a four-letter word: love; and in this stunning account of how a boy evolves into a man as he recognizes the limitations of his talent and steers his ambitions to more self-saving avenues, love — Emma.

Gil Freeman’s story begins at the end. Now comfortably married to the girl next door and soon to be a father in his “sold out” but marginally prosperous life in Oak Park, Ill., he immediately takes the reader back to his youth. He abandons college and the Midwest to go to New York to make it big in the theater. A college girlfriend — two years his senior and benefactor of his first great “crush” — Lisa, a cheerleader in artist’s smock, provides him with one-third of a Village sublet which she shares with Emma, an aspiring poet who, like them, has abandoned Middle America and all its conservative, mid ’70s values for the bohemian life of Gotham.

Gil’s voice is endearing, frank and self-effacing. He falls hopelessly in love with Emma, an abrasive but beautiful, celibate but sexy, anarchistic but democratic, feminist but misogynistic, talented but insecure, generous but possessive bag of contradictory womanhood who is critical of everything she is, does, sees, believes or encounters. She soon spurns Gil’s lustful advances and directs his emotions, instead, toward building a stronger bond between them, a friendship born of mutual dependency and love.

Gil’s theatrical experiences are less successful than his attempts to break down Emma’s sexual barriers. Ultimately, he must come to terms with who he is, what he wants, He learns from Emma what the real meaning of life — and New York — may be. “It’s a dump,” he says. That’s the message of the book, that, and how love between friends can transcend everything else in life.

Clay Reynolds, author of Ars Poetica, 2003

[Editor’s Note: This review was originally published in the Dallas Morning News, September 14, 1989.]

excerpt:

If I had it to do all over again, I think I’d try to find some way to skip being nine years old. Because that’s when it bit me–the Theater Bug, I mean. I ended up devoting twenty-one of my thirty-five years to pursuing stardom on the stage and , looking back, I wonder if the height of my career might not have been when I was nine. It may have been the last time I was totally, utterly secure in the theater.

For those of you that missed my performance, I played Little Jimmy in The Parson Comes to Dinner, a 100% amateur theatrical put on at the Oak Park Community Playhouse, in the suburbs of Chicago. I don’t think I knew the sheer depth and scope of my role until the first night’s curtain call. They clapped at me. I know people generally do that at the end of plays but at nine I hadn’t worked out the finer points and , frankly, I took it very personally.

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