Like many readers of the Elegant Variation blog, I watched Mark Sarvas’s debut novel Harry, Revised come to life over the past two years. This made it only more satisfying when I finally read the book and found it a remarkable, highly accomplished work.
I hadn’t realized the extent to which Mark Sarvas had written a psychological comic novel in the classic tradition of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller and Bruce Jay Friedman (John Updike even dabbled in this specific tradition with Bech: A Book). Since I love this style of writing (these writers were all loosely part of a “dark comedy” or “black comedy” scene in the 1960s and 70s), I am thrilled to find in Harry, Revised a skillful homage to that past tradition, as well as a very original novel that should find many happy readers today.
Here’s the good news: Mark Sarvas is a really funny writer. But as a comic novelist must, he deploys the humorous touches very carefully at selected points within this generally morbid story about a forty-something husband and doctor whose wife suddenly dies, leaving him with no clue what to do or who he is.
Told in present tense, the jerky plot evokes the unhinged motions of a grieving mind, which is what makes it work. The character floats through funerals and relatives and diners and waitresses and sandwiches. He talks to people with names like Max, Bruce, Molly and Lucille. In the end, Harry, Revised is a book about love, though it’s not quite a love story (in the same way that The Great Gatsby was a book about love but not quite a love story). It’s also a sobering book about marriage, about the importance of forgiveness and honesty in marriage. (Since I’m getting married this summer, I think I’ll take this book’s lessons to heart.)
The book’s main character only learns these lessons too late, though, and so this is a sad book. But, as in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (which it resembles), this book is about redemption through sadness.
The main character’s name is the key; throughout the novel this lurching doctor is not yet Harry Revised. He is Harry Rent — Harry torn, Harry destroyed, like a ripped shirt.
The book’s denouement takes some shaky turns, and one feels the author strain slightly towards the end, as the book descends to gay prison sex jokes and unlikely elaborate setup schemes to reach its finale. But every comic novel is allowed to ride off the rails; Bellow and Roth did it all the time. By this book’s moving final pages, the title character has truly become Harry, Revised.
Bravo to Mark Sarvas, the first lit-blogger to hit a home run.