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A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall

Fiction | Novel
400 pages
5.313” x 8” Hardcover
Also available in ebook and paperback formats
ISBN 9780062280022
First Edition
Review Copy: Paperback
Harper Perennial
New York, New York, USA
Available HERE
Review by Eric Shonkwiler

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall starts out—and continues for some time—to be a novel meant to plumb the depths of its characters. Touted as a novel of ideas—capital A art chief among them—one might be surprised to find that, around the halfway mark, the story grows a plot and starts flying along. This is not, thankfully, jarring, nor is it inorganic to the book itself. One of the best things about Chancellor’s writing is his ability to sink a reader into whatever he’s covering. In Brave Man, we get a few water polo matches, RC-boat experiments, page on page of a thick academic speech—and yet, it’s readable, wanted.

Brave Man is the story of Owen Burr, an Olympic-level athlete whose career is met with a swift end when a feisty water polo opponent digs his thumb into Owen’s eye. Suddenly absolved of what seemed his only choice for the future, Owen sets out for Europe, intent on asking himself, “Which half of my life will I waste? Would I have wasted?”

Owen quickly sinks into the art world of Berlin, finding a cast of characters both depraved and enigmatic, empathetic and cloistered. Out of his depth, he unwittingly becomes both artist and art, nearly dying in the process. His father, Joseph Burr, is a middling Classicist professor struggling in many ways to do exactly what Owen is doing: make some permanent and worthwhile mark in people’s lives, and his own. When Owen disappears, Burr finds his purpose, following after him on bad leads and ending up involved with a meeting of academics and anarchists in 2004 Athens, Greece, while Owen is pulling himself back together in Germany. These two narratives, set a little ways apart, race ahead, stumble, and struggle to meet.

The plot of Brave Man isn’t exactly secondary, nor is it the main event. The book is at its best when Chancellor is giving over to Owen, in particular, and Owen himself is confessing in a peculiar, braggartly-but-embarrassed manner about himself. As a child, Owen developed a “religion,” an unusual schema based on a sort of synesthesia that would overcome him from time to time, relying on four very particular colors:

A flash of peridot at sunset means that Hermes is there. The other colors happen gradually, like the shadow on a sundial. Hermes is like a bomb blast…

And later,

…Ultramarine is this crushed mineral blue that goes with Athene. I went entire months seeing white as a light blue. Ultramarine has been the dominant mood of my life… without that blue I have no claim on perspective…

Beyond the fact that Chancellor writes these passages with a mesmerizing depth of character, they’re also just damn interesting in their portrayal of the unique territories of the mind.

Owen ends up on the run, aided by Stevie, a DJ with great taste, who sends him to Iceland to escape the authorities, just as Burr comes athwart them himself. Both wind up north, where Owen has begun to haunt the far reaches of the country, and the two sides of the story dovetail beautifully and inevitably. A big book in every way, Brave Man may not suit those with little patience, but those with it will be rewarded.

Eric Shonkwiler is the author of the novel, Above All Men, chosen as a Midwest Connections 2014 Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. He received his MFA in Fiction from University of California​-​Riverside as a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow and ​was recently selected as a New River Gorge Winter Writer-in-Residence.

• This book was sent to Alternating Current from the author at the request of the reviewer, who saw the author at AWP and expressed interest in reviewing the book. • Permalink • Tag: The Volt •

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