An American Revisionary


Detour is an expanded version of Michael Brodsky’s first novel, of the same name, which won the PEN/Hemingway. It was published originally in 1977. Since then, Brodsky’s writing has received much critical praise,but it’s also had detractors, who claim his writing is too dense and difficult to follow (he often employs page-long paragraphs, and doesn’t divide Detour into chapters), or that he doesn’t pay sufficient attention to plot—all technique, no soul. Well, this is nonsense. True, he’s a very skilled technician, but his prose is emotionally quite moving as well. As for plot, the book has one—it isn’t elaborate, but it works. The protagonist in this autobiographical novel is an unnamed young man who has recently been on an extended stay in Europe. He’s now in New York City, but on the verge of leaving to attend medical school in Cleveland. Before his departure, he gets involved with a young woman, Anne, a recent heroin addict now on methadone. They travel together to Cleveland, where they move into a house already inhabited by several other young people. While in Cleveland the protagonist works as a language teacher in addition to his studies. His relationship with Anne steadily deteriorates, and he begins to doubt whether he wants to make medicine his career. He takes a break, visiting Montreal and Toronto, and then returns to Cleveland to announce to his roommates that he is leaving medical school and moving.

Brodsky’s writing is abstract and analytical. He spends a great deal of time pondering his motivation and that of the characters he’s involved with. He devotes much attention to his landlord, Steve, who, while investigating a murder case, discovers the difference between a detail and a clue: “A clue brings the case to a close—eliminates it from consciousness—from the institutional consciousness. Every clue marks, then, the partial death of the case. . . . The detail distorts the case, deforms it, makes it move in and out of sequence, like one of those Off-Off Broadway soaps . . . ”

Brodsky’s writing is highly allusive. He not only employs metaphors brilliantly, but also makes frequent references to movies, analyzing portions of them, to shed light on the actions of himself and his characters. In addition to filmmakers, he cites the work of novelists, poets, philosophers, and psychiatrists. To be able to use words and write are of critical importance to Brodsky: “I felt alive when words surged inside me,” his hero says. And Brodsky does make his novel come alive. He’s constantly examining and defining words—sorting out the details from the clues. His characters suffer, they feel deeply, and we can easily identify with them. It should be obvious to serious readers, then, that Brodsky, more than being merely a clever technician, is a sensitive, original, and insightful writer, one of the best produced by this country in the last 30 years.