by Edward Desautels

Flicker in the Porthole Glass cover
Flicker in the Porthole Glass cover
MAMMOTH Books, 2002.

Buy it! [SPD Books]

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Jack Ruineux, projectionist at a run-down movie theater in Philadelphia, struggles to reconcile Hollywood imagery with his dreary quotidian existence. Alienated from family, haunted by dark memories of his youth, Ruineux casts himself into an inner world where history, myth, memory, and nostalgia blend in whims of self-reinvention. These he obsessively documents, typing them up at his desk in the projection booth. Nostalgic for a life as yet unlived, Ruineux fixes on the idea of himself as an addled old man playing out his final days in the dilapidated Hotel Vendig. Jasmine, his lover, tries to cure Ruineux of the condition she calls “Complex 35,” a reference to the Simplex 35 projectors he operates. It’s a condition, she fears, that will speed him on his way to a future of isolation and loneliness. Frustrated, unable to draw Ruineux out, she attempts an empathic understanding, relating their story in a narrative that is at once of Ruineux and outside Ruineux. By “filling in the gaps,” she hopes discover the means to make whole a Ruineux with whom she can enjoy a profound connection.

Reviewing the book in the April 2003 edition of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Joseph Dewey wrote

“Edward Desautels’s intriguing first novel offers a disturbing—and eerily riveting—account of the dilemma posed by our cultural addiction to film, how we have been given new license to disregard the heft of the real world and relish the sturdy pleasure-prison of the movie house. Jack Ruineux, a projectionist in a run-down Philadelphia movie theater and a struggling writer pounding out on his ancient Royal typewriter an enthralling word-picture of late-century urban streetlife, is trapped in the tension between projections, the ones that flicker by him at work and his own fictional persona, which he types into reality as he endures the long hours in the booth. That fictional projection embodies what Ruineux fears he will become: a decrepit old man living out his closing days amid the roaches and stench of a flophouse in Philadelphia (itself a city that participates effortlessly in two tenses simultaneously). The riveting “recollections” of Ruineux’s fictional projection create the novel’s difficult tension: Ruineux, a young man nevertheless already in ruins who resists confronting the difficult upbringing that has left him with such diminished expectations and who prefers writing in a sort of creepy fast-forward about the burned-out ends of this doppelgänger’s lost life. Counterpoised against Ruineux’s internal shadowshow of crossed projections is the tonic offered by the vibrant Jasmine: the generous benediction of the sweet press of the real and of imperfect love as a way out of the narrowed dead ends and awful loneliness of Ruineux’s imagination. Although the deft handling of such cross-narratives is compelling and the handling of cinema metaphors striking, the achievement here is Desautels’s prose, an aural event both jagged and elegant, assaultive and inviting, that moves with the clipped, dangerous, urgent kinesis of hard bop jazz.”

A reviewer on had this to say:

Desautels is Our Proust

Desautels’ meticulous depictions of human cognition are stunning. His elaborate transgressions are an orgy of pop culture and astronomical imagery. The lead character, Jack: is he a victim or Zeno? Of Heraclitus? Of both? In any case, the way he strings words, sentences, and thoughts together is beautiful and inspiring…it’s refreshing to read a novel that negotiates so smoothly with a horrific reality. The whole book is grimy but alluring. Perhaps the book is just a city?

Serial installments of Flicker in the Porthole Glass published here on Maximum Fiction: