By GUY D’ASTOLFO
“Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright (Grand Central Publishing, August 2011), 336 pages.
A copy of the recently re-released novel “Tony and Susan” arrived on my desk with press materials touting it as a lost modern classic.
High praise, leading to high expectations. Fortunately, it succeeds, but not necessarily in the way I expected.
The novel, originally published in 1993 to moderate acclaim, was written by the late Austin Wright, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati who died in 2003 at age 80.
“Tony and Susan” is more than a story. It is a case study on how a novel can hijack a fertile mind.
Wright understands how the act of reading can insidiously propel a person down mental paths that had been roped off.
Like a roller coaster that charges out of the gate at full speed, “Tony and Susan” pulls in the reader from the first page.
The author employs a unique structure that makes it like reading two novels at the same time.
Susan, a housewife and part-time English professor, receives a manuscript of a novel from her ex-husband. He wants her honest opinion of his work.
The reader is in Susan’s mind as she reads her ex’s novel, while her current husband is away on a business trip. Long- buried tensions from both marriages build. Suppressed thoughts burn through the walls.
The novel written by Susan’s ex is a tale of murder and revenge, involving a college professor named Tony. The action occurs mainly in two places: a college town in Ohio and a remote area of north-central Pennsylvania.
Wright proves to be a master of mental descriptiveness. He is able to communicate, with the finest nuance, the deepest thoughts of both Tony and Susan.
With absorbing clarity, Wright ratchets up the apprehension in Susan’s mind as she reads.
The two stories end as Susan’s past and present begin to converge.
And afterward, you realize that Susan wasn’t the only one taken for a ride by a mind untethered by words.