The Great Man by Kate Christensen

August 8, 2007
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The Great Man
Kate Christensen

Doubleday
8/8/2007
Hardcover/320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-51845-1
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". . . a work of fiction. . . portrayed as a biography."

While a work of fiction, The Great Man is portrayed as a biography of an egotistical womanizer and a figurative painter during the rule of abstract expressionism in New York. Two men are working on his biography and each sees him in a different light. The reader is exposed to both concepts and is left to determine just how bad or good the man was.

When Oscar Feldman dies in 2001, he leaves behind a wife, a deeply autistic son, and a mistress of thirty years with whom he has fathered two illegitimate daughters, and his sister Maxine, a notable abstract painter in her own right. He also leaves behind a secret that could have shocked his artistic world. Oscar Feldman, the Great Man, beloved artist of the forties and fifties, has deviated from the abstract painting of Pollock and other notables of the period, stubbornly painting only nude females. The self-taught artist has disdained his contemporaries and distanced himself from the artists of his time, enjoying every minute of his contrariness.

Magnificently selfish, the man’s natural appetite for his lovely subjects has never extended to their emotional well-being. After painting and seducing them, he has moved on heartily (and heartlessly) to his next prey.

Adept at juggling two households, he has had the best of all worlds – personal, artistic, and sexual. He also has had the freedom to booze with his admiring colleagues. The bad boy artist enjoyed his life unequivocally.

Oscar and his sister have had a bet that he could paint in her pure abstract style but that she could not paint in his abstract female style. Whether he succeeded or she succeeded is determined at the end of the story. Decades elapse before the “fraud” is exposed. When it is revealed, posthumously, Oscar comes out smelling like a rose.

While designated as a story about the Great Man, it is really a story about the amazing women in Oscar’s life. There is the dedicated, devoted Abigail, his wife and her personal acceptance of his life style and appetites, while she cares for the son Oscar never pays attention to. Her dreams have been trashed and relegated to nothing, yet she has her own secrets of survival with this selfish man.

Teddy St. Cloud, his mistress, accepts him for who he is and is an interesting subject in her own right, asking nothing more of him than his physical presence, his healthy lust and the knowledge that she is the person he runs to when in need emotionally.

Maxine, his lesbian sister, could have been a larger star in the literary world, had she taken to marketing herself and her work and if her life style were more well known. Maxine was the purist artist. Oscar was the artist who purveyed his work to those who liked the scandal that followed Oscar everywhere.

Each of the three women have the opportunity to tell their story to the two biographers and their life with the artist as they experienced it. Oddly, they become friends in the end.

Not always a pretty picture, but entertaining. One can’t help but thinking that Oscar without the three women in his life was nothing but a fraud who found a way to perpetrate his life style on those nearest to him. Clearly, the women were far more fascinating than Oscar Feldman, and perhaps more time should have been devoted to them and their endurance with him.

Admittedly, there are times when the dialogue borders on vulgarity and/or profanity early in the book, and might startle some readers. The pace is slow until mid book, and the author writes in a style that can propel you to the dictionary to find the exact meaning of a new word. There are a number of well structured sentences that tell so much (143 words plus). These sentences could take the place of a chapter.

This is a good read, but this reviewer’s empathy was with the women in his life. They deserved much more than they got. There is one unanswered question: why didn’t this man leave any (or at least one) of his million dollar paintings to his long-term mistress and his girls, so Teddy wouldn’t have to live such a poverty stricken life after his death? In truth, she loved him with all his faults and expected nothing of him but his time. Her strength is admirable and amazing.

The Great Man, is a tribute to a man who really was not so great.

Reviewer: Sandra Masters McCart

 

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