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Book Review: The Bar at Twilight

The title of Frederic Tuten’s new collection of stories The Bar at Twilight comes from one of the short pieces here, The Snow on Tompkin Square Park, about a man and horses who strike up a conversation in a Lower East Side bar during a blizzard. It has this wonderful line, “The snow had bullied the streets into silence.” And it’s significant of Tuten’s creative imagination, fantastic, nostalgic, absurd, funny, surreal, resigned.

Most of the stories, whose publication dates range from 2009 to 2019, are subtly related to the colorful, Chagall-like expressionist oil painting on the cover, also by Tuten, who studied art before he became a professional writer. Both painting and stories manically compose odd and discordant details, suggesting that only art matters in this chaotic, indifferent, amoral, world. As the epigraph from the poet Wallace Stevens puts it, “Let the candle shine for the beauty of shining.”

We yearn repeatedly for love, affection, warmth, communion, salvation. But as one of Tuten’s characters says, “Do not expect anything. Not even unhappiness.” In “The Tower” a man’s wife walks in the door with a red handbag and says simply, I’m leaving you. “For how long?” “For always.” No one’s sad. After her departure, her lover shows up to pay a friendly visit to the protagonist but can’t compete for attention with the protagonist’s book about Montaigne.

Setting the story “The Bar at Twilight” in an old Tompkins Square Park tavern at day’s end may owe something to Hemingway’s stark depiction of emptiness in his much-revered story, “A Clean Well Lighted Place,” with its incantatory, mocking of The Lord’s Prayer as “nada.” Tuten’s story shows both his admiration of Hemingway and his later sense that what the famous Lost Generation writer offered readers in place of “nada” was wild living or nada. Tuten’s bar, on the other hand, is a sanctuary. Go along, be compassionate, move on. Twilight descends sooner than we know.

Tuten’s favorites include Cezanne, Rousseau, Poussin, Delacroix, Monet, Hemingway, Montaigne, Mann, Melville, Djina Barnes, “the economy and unadorned ease” of the Belgian fiction writer George Simenon; cats, scotch neat, dialogues that snap with absurdity.

Some of his protagonists have a passion for inserting French into any conversation or non-conversation and make asides that are pithy and wise: “When you’re left, no matter how old you are, finally, you are always sixteen.”

A high school dropout who grew up poor, living with his Sicilian grandmother in The Bronx, Tuten was “seduced” by reading early on, and by art. He dropped out of high school at 15 to move to Paris. Fast forward to years of constant reading and broadening his critical intelligence. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in literature from NYU, taught, traveled, and started publishing award-winning novels.

Actually, The Bar at Twilight has 16 pieces, the last – “Coda: Some Episodes in the History of My Reading” is a simple, elegant, instructive essay about the abiding power of books. “You are never completely alone with a good novel,” he writes. “All my life I wanted to be near books, to have them close to me, by me when I eat, beside me in bed, on the little shelf I built next to the toilet. “ Amen.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.