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The Medici Boy, by John L’Heureux, Astor & Blue, RRP£14.99/$24.95, 336 pages
John L’Heureux is certainly one of America’s greatest living writers. His oeuvre of almost 20 books (novels, short stories and poems) has had a tremendous influence on several generations of American writers, including Tobias Wolff, Kathryn Harrison, Harriet Doerr, Ron Hansen, Samantha Chang, David Henry Hwang and dozens of others. Now he is publishing his first novel in 10 years, The Medici Boy, and it’s a masterpiece, the most ambitious, beautiful and complex novel I’ve read this year.
In Desires (1981), an early short story collection by L’Heureux, a boy at school hangs his coat and scarf in his locker and then, when no one is looking, takes off his face and hangs it on a hook. Instead of describing the boy’s social awkwardness, L’Heureux offers us metaphor as fact that is just as immediate and startling as the magical realist work of Gabriel García Márquez. The boy beats his cheeks with clay on the way home to create bruises so that his mother will console him; in every moment of L’Heureux’s work we encounter a ferocity of characterisation to match the stories of Flannery O’Connor but also a different generosity, a look at what makes an artist, a look at redemption through art, and this is what The Medici Boy brings to fruition, finally.
Luca di Matteo, our narrator, is a failed friar who becomes assistant to the great artist Donatello in 15th-century Florence. He witnesses the creation of the sublime in the tricky art of bronze casting, a process that begins with the construction of a frame, followed by a wax sculpture that is covered in clay, dried and fired and then poured with bronze where the melted wax once was. The scenes of this delicate procedure are unforgettable, but even better is the portrait of Donatello, in all his calm and frightening intensity, hard discipline, thunderous rages and, most importantly, his tortured love for young Agnolo, the 16-year-old boy who serves as model and inspiration for Donatello’s bronze “David”. The groundbreaking sculpture was the first full-sized nude bronze for 1,000 years and a remarkable departure from an earlier marble “David” by Donatello. In L’Heureux’s reimagining, it is Agnolo’s impish, bragging and maddening tease that is captured in Donatello’s greatest work – an artist’s suffering over the love of his life.
The most terrifying sequence in the book is the public torture, whipping, hanging and burning of Piero di Jacopo, a coppersmith convicted of raping a 10-year-old boy. Luca, our narrator, is brought in for questioning, and asked to give up Donatello as a sodomite (accusers were rewarded with part of the huge penalties gay men would have to pay if arrested).
The Medici Boy is a great historical novel which creates a visceral sense of time and place and risk. L’Heureux spent a year in Florence on a Guggenheim fellowship researching, and he manages to capture a unique moment in which politics, art, religion and sexuality collide.
The spiritual debate here about sin and fate feels fresh and edgy, and refuses to be resolved. Our narrator sets out as a friar but is drawn to sex with prostitutes and ends up marrying one of them. He feels ambivalent about his gay son and is eventually imprisoned in a monastery by his other son; he never fully understands or forgives one, and is never fully understood or forgiven by the other.
There is a tremendous cohesion in this novel – even the minor characters are important, and each part of the story reflects on every other. We are presented with a portrayal of real art mired in real life: Donatello interrupted by one of Agnolo’s tantrums; jealousy and betrayal derailing other works; commissions as political threats; the church willing to sacrifice those who are forging its doors and carving its faces in marble.
What makes the book feel so dangerous is that everyone is out of control, acting unconsciously. They think they know their reasons, but they don’t, and they discover the truth too late. This is great tragedy, and the hallmark of all of L’Heureux’s work. In an author’s note to his literary page-turner A Woman Run Mad (1988), which sold more than 100,000 copies in the US, he writes: “This book is not, in essence, about sex or murder but about the restlessness that drives us on to fabricate our lives and – willy nilly – to accomplish our fates.” Reading The Medici Boy, you will become caught up in sex and murder, betrayal and political upheaval, love and desire and the ferocious creation of the beautiful in sculpture, but you’ll also catch a glimpse of the place that art and religion point to within us, our finer, quieter makings.
David Vann is author of ‘Goat Mountain’ (William Heinemann)