It’s hard to imagine Anthony Quinn’s Antinoos, a fatty meat slab of unbrokered confidence and distorted pride, showing up in the movie version of Ben Ehrenreich’s retooled Odyssey, The Suitors. The title characters have as much chance of attaining Penelope (or rather, Penny) as finding gold at the bottom of their crack pipes. But this debut novel is less about drama than seeing what can be worked with the slippery filaments of anticlimax and inertia.
Ehrenreich, a Voice contributor, hedges his bets with a lively backstory. Penny is an orphaned high school slut, Payne (our Odysseus) a star athlete she won’t let in her pants. He sulks, waging nightly vigils outside her window. Eventually she relents, and they flee by motorcycle, settling in an ungoverned “yawning valley.” Payne enlists the help of a band of wastrels on the strength of his wife’s charms and the promise of barnyard intoxicants. Together they build his palace and pillage neighboring homes. But they refuse to follow Payne to the great War as he pursues greater spoils.
In describing the suitors’ day to day, Ehrenreich can evoke a heartbreaking anomie, a feeling further complicated when a new rival surfaces. Yet ultimately the characters are little more than their self-destructive proclivities and desires—rendered with an insouciant wink rather than the sober eye for the grotesque that could make them human. Felix, an accordion-playing dwarf, finds the most sympathy, even as he monologues in an inexplicably tense-shifting voice (“Sometimes the clouds fell low and fill the field”).
Despite some overmannered set pieces, The Suitors has moments of startling compassion. When Penny, in a letter to Payne, wonders if her “name is like the face of someone you once passed in the street,” our narrator’s claims that “this is not a love story” appear defensive: It’s just not a happy one.