In this lengthy retelling of the Faust legend, an obsessed young pianist from a Negro shantytown in rural Kentucky rises to conquer Paris in the 1950s.
Kathleen Ingersoll is a gifted musician, one of the few pianists to master Leopold Godowsky’s notoriously difficult variations on Chopin’s etudes. But the protagonist also has help, real or imagined, from the devil himself. And like scores of bad-bargainers before her—the doomed creatures of Goethe and Marlowe, Oscar Wilde and David Mamet—she has to pay the price.
The Applause of the Gods is novel number six by the Detroit-born, upstate New York writer Warren R B Dixon, now 90 years old. At 641 pages, it can be a slog: it’s so overstuffed with roués and schemers, prodigies and predators, fatal beauties and multiple sets of identical twins (even Josephine Baker puts in a cameo) that the reader’s head fairly swims. But Dixon’s neo-Gothic prose is fun to read: “An evil shadow had fallen across the keyboards of Steinways and Bosendorfers to menace her music.” And Kathleen’s single-minded drive, largely blind to love or empathy, is grimly fascinating: “ambition nesting in her soul like a condor.”
Among Dixon’s supporting players, the lesbian art patron Flora Glee, the wunderkind violinist Alysia Argand and the gold-digging temptress Inyin Hager (the author has an affinity for unusual names) deserve special recognition, and his occasional trips down political sidetracks like the French-Algerian war, the early days of the CIA (and its secret LSD experiments) and the back-alley battles of the Irish Republican Army add a welcome touch of melodrama to the proceedings.
Does the indefatigible Mr. Dixon need an editor with a cruel blue pencil? Absolutely. But when we at last reach the final page and Kathleen once more beseeches her dark benefactor (“It’s me again, Old Scratch. Help me. Please help me.”), we’ve had a pretty good time getting there.
May the author still be writing at 100.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.