By Nick Bertozzi
St. Martin’s Press
If there was a major complaint to be had with Jason’s recent book, The Left Bank Gang, it’s the fact that the author’s customarily tight plotlines, suffered from a lack of focus, this time out. The book felt uncomfortably broken into two separate books—first was a light-hearted story of a group of famous authors, of luminary early twentieth century authors, including Joyce, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, living as unsuccessful comic artists (and, this being Jason, gaunt, anthropomorphic animals) in 1920s Paris. The second half find the characters awkwardly at the center of a bank heist
Nick Bertozzi’s The Salon has a lot with The Left Bank Gang, centering around a fictionalized account of a group of avant-garde painters (art patrons Gertrude and Leo Stein also play pivotal roles, the former of whom, incidentally has a minor part in Jason’s book), living in Paris in 1907. Where Jason’s book abruptly transitions into a noirish robbery caper, the action in Bertozzi’s is more akin to a supernatural murder mystery. The Salon is also more successful in framing its own plotline—unlike Jason, Bertozzi feels fairly confident in the direction that his story is going to go in, from the outset.
Bertozzi also has a firm grasp on his painters’ characters, with Picasso as an unrestrained goofy hell-raiser, speaking in broken French, and stripping naked at every opportunity, and fellow cubist pioneer, Braque, playing the roll of his more button-down foil. Gertrude and Leo Stein, must cope with a troubled relationship, a controlling Leo helplessly feeling power slipping through his fingers from the moment that his sister is first introduced to the infamous Alice B. Toklas. The great Gaughin, meanwhile, having died some four years prior to the opening of the story, has far more important things to worry about, problems that also confront the rest of Bertozzi’s famous cast, fairly early in, as the word of murder painters spreads swiftly through the city.
The Salon is an adventure story first, and a history lesson second, but where The Left Bank Gang’s characters could have just as easily been a group of anonymous struggling artists, Bertozzi’s story has a few moments of art history to impart, like Picasso and Braque’s growing obsession with multiple perspectives. Primarily, however, the book is a fun tale, culminating in an atmospheric climax. It never tries to be a masterpiece, despite the geniuses it centers around, and as such is perfectly content to simply be a bit of light-hearted fun.