THE NOVEL, NOT THE SANDWICH: Andrew Madigan on Mark Sarvas’ Harry, Revised

Harry, Revised, Mark Sarvas, Bloomsbury

The first line of Harry, Revised is both memorable and poignant: “Harry Rent used to fiddle with his wedding ring, now he fiddles with the space it has left behind” (1). This is an epigram, of sorts, for the novel, which is a comic interpretation of the classic love triangle: a man, a woman, and the negative space of their dead relationship.

One of the pleasures of this book is the way Sarvas conjoins, with an unshaking hand, high and low culture, the sacred and profane. His protagonist considers the Monte Cristo sandwich:

He imagines it to be some promotional tie-in from Dumas’s day, which gets it wrong by about a hundred years. But he does know the story of the count, of the man falsely imprisoned who reinvents himself and exacts revenge on those who wronged him. That he knows it largely through the Mr. Magoo cartoon and the Classics Illustrated comic book does nothing to dim his enthusiasm. (12)

Sarvas knows the story too, for it’s also the story of Harry Rent, a sort of nebbishy Henry Chinaski with a medical degree. Harry, Revised is a recreation of Monte Cristo (the novel, not the sandwich). As the story progresses, often rushing forward then pedaling backward in time, we discover that Harry is insecure about marrying above his station, both socio-economically and aesthetically. He grows jealous and insecure about his beautiful, elegant, tasteful, well-connected wife, whose mother seems to despise him. The wife, Anna, has plenty of her own insecurities, but Harry is too afraid and self-absorbed to notice. Instead of talking it out, he visits prostitutes, renting a few moments of happiness.

Harry Rent desperately needs an ontological make-over, and the author provides one. In the second act, Sarvas addresses this transformation. After reading just “a hundred or so pages” (107) of Dumas, Harry begins to change from a quivering coward into a man of action,

He’s taken the first steps toward distancing himself from the Harry Rent who cowered before hookers. And although it’s a mere sliver that divides them, it has the potential to become a chasm, a chasm that he increasingly desires to have yawning between the two Harrys. (108)

Harry Rent is troubled, broken, bumbling, hapless, bowel-spasmodic, insecure, weak, chronically self-abusing, difficult and possibly imbecilic. He’s a wrong-foot specialist of the highest order, but he’s not unlikable. An antihero, yes, but he’s no Meursault: you’d invite him to brunch and maybe even introduce him to your mother.

Though largely interior, following the lopsided trajectory of Harry’s consciousness, the novel is not static or plotless. It’s clever, witty and well written. The plots keeps us guessing, but without gimmicks or contrivance. Sarvas knows how to conceal information and when to reveal it. The reader enjoys a sense of deferred gratification when the covert nuggets of plot are finally mined.

Sarvas’s ability to balance plot and character is matched by his ability to balance the comic and tragic. He’s the consummate acrobat, balancing so much without, ostensibly, breaking a sweat or ripping his unitard. Although Harry, Revised is largely comic, melancholy lurks behind Harry’s pratfalls and the author’s verbal wit. Sarvas has discovered the philosopher’s stone of contemporary fiction, a novel that is equally likeable and literary, sophisticated and slapstick.

This sense of balance eventually wears out, however. Though Sarvas is skilled at characterization, mood and plot, the reader may lose interest in Harry Rent. His picaresque antics are always amusing, but in the final quarter we don’t necessarily care what becomes of him. This is an intrinsic challenge with comedy. It’s hard enough to entertain the reader and to create humor in the two-dimensional world of fiction, but it’s exceedingly difficult to succeed with the comic mode while simultaneously sustaining the reader’s emotional attachment to the characters.