“A Neophyte Editor is Lost in a Labyrinth of Literary Deception and Cold War Betrayal”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Anna Mundow about the Francine Prose novel The Vixen, described as “A neophyte editor is lost in a labyrinth of literary deception, Cold War betrayal and long-planned revenge, all under the shadow of an execution.”

Cold War paranoia and McCarthy-era persecution, both notoriously epitomized by the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case, are the persistent bass notes in Francine Prose’s novel, and there are inescapable echoes, therefore, of Philip Roth’s American Trilogy and in particular of his 1998 novel “I Married a Communist.” (The Rosenberg case also inspired E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel” and Robert Coover’s “The Public Burning,” along with numerous nonfiction investigations.)

But the prevailing tone in “The Vixen” is more lively than somber, for this is the story of Simon Putnam, a disarming narrator familiar from countless novels of youth and inexperience. A former scholarship student at Harvard who in 1954 is armed with a degree in Folklore and Mythology, this feckless young man is awarded a job at a New York publishing house thanks to the intercession of an influential relative. When the two meet, Uncle Maddie also dispenses invaluable advice. “Never drink cocktails,” he cautions his nephew over lunch in a restaurant”….And never trust a smooth talker, he might have added, or a beguiling woman, both of which are lying in wait for our awkward neophyte.

As a proofreader at Landry, Landry & Bartlett, Simon soon encounters Warren Landry, who founded the firm with his Harvard classmate Preston Bartlett III: “Often, on his way back from lunch, Warren lurched down the hall, all jutting elbows and knees, chatting up the typing pool . . . stepping into the offices of people he liked…[calling] all the men old boys and dear old boys and all the women sweetheart.”

On one such visit, he presents Simon with a manuscript for his perusal. “The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic,” a novel by Anya Partridge, is the steamy tale of Esther Rosenstein, a Jewish femme fatale whose carnal appetite is matched only by her Communist zealotry. A gross re-imagining of the Rosenberg story, the vile potboiler will be a surefire moneymaker, Warren insists, and his new employee could be its lucky editor….

Torn between revulsion and ambition, he convinces himself that he can improve the novel by working with its reclusive author. Who turns out to be an exotic beauty holed up in a bordello-like suite in a decidedly odd mental institution, where Preston Bartlett III also resides and where “The Vixen” makes a detour into Gothic pastiche. The diversion is, however, mercifully brief. For beneath Anya Partridge’s vampish exterior lies a regular gal who just “made up a story about a woman who likes power and sex” and whose own appetites are similarly robust. Simon, instantly besotted, doesn’t stand a chance. “It wasn’t her fault that she was beautiful,” he argues, and “that she’d written a less-than-great novel,” and we can only cover our eyes as he races onto a minefield.

No longer a sexual undergraduate—Anya briskly takes care of that—but now a pawn in somebody’s game, Simon begins to rewrite the appalling Rosenberg/Rosenstein novel, meeting little resistance from its author, who seems curiously bored with her creation. The reason for her indifference, though somewhat obvious all along, then acquires a satisfying additional twist. And one further version of Anya’s book will be written before Ms. Prose cinches together a pleasingly intricate plot that hinges, inevitably, on lies and betrayal, both personal and political. There are spies here, and traitors….

The novel draws to a close on a summer night one year later: “The ninth of June 1954. The night McCarthy began to fall.” Simon and his parents are again watching TV, this time as Joseph Welch, special counsel for the Army, mortally wounds a drunken bully with the single word “decency.” And the Putnams dare to celebrate:

“Finally, someone says it! It’s over,” said Dad . . .

“It’s not over,” said Mom.

“Maybe,” said Dad. “But it’s ending.”

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