Obsession as a topic has certainly inspired many an author, but what award-winning fiction writer and baseball historian David Nemec delivers in his new novel, The Picture Maker (CreateSpace), is memorable: a story of fixation as erotomonomania. Paul Raber, about to be paroled, knows from the minute he lays eyes on Seena Schain at a poetry reading she gives one day to prisoners, that he’s hooked. “There are moments that defy explanation…How and when such moments originate who of us can ever know. But from the first instant I saw Seena standing…at Wallkill I just knew that never again this lifetime would I experience anything like the rush of emotions she delivered to me.” Out and living at a midtown Y in New York, he writes to her, and she, in a cryptic, mysterious way he will come to see is her essence, writes back, in poetry.
He pursues her, even breaking parole rules to journey to her isolated home in the woods in Saratoga Springs. “Like all animals that are incapable of traveling with the pack, I was clever at laying a false scent.” But he’s smart enough, cynical enough and faithful enough to his passion, not to allow anyone, including himself, to define the origin or meaning of his obsession or explain its ironic and tragic consequences. And—nice touch—Nemec compels the reader to stay with him, even though it’s clear from the opening first-person line that Raber, a flawed and dangerous protagonist (on one occasion he refers to himself as Paul Bearer), will endure: “For over half my life now I’ve swung back and forth between whether to believe it was the fickle finger of fate or serendipity that prompted my transfer from Auburn State Prison to Wallkill that November a few days before Thanksgiving.” It’s also a nice touch that at the end Raber is no further along in understanding or even wanting to understand the full nature of his obsession, or his Madonna or how much she knows about a cold-case murder of a young girl buried in her backyard. As for that “fickle finger of fate,” Raber knows he’s using a cliché; it’s one of his doomed attempts to get a bit of distance on what he has wrought. A shrewd chess player, he’s challenged by the game he plays with his lady love, with himself and with others, often comparing his behavior to a chess move. He also realizes that Seena, with “her obliquity” is not playing the same game, though he would never learn which “was the gasoline and which the match, only that the latent blaze inside each of us was fanned into flames by the other.” And so he continues to up the ante on taking risks, wondering whether his self-destructive behavior may be a way for him to reexamine his actions—once he accidentally shot someone but was it really an accident?
What to make of the book’s title, “The Picture Maker?” Raber frames images of Seena as a way of fixing her in time and place. “In ways I may never understand I’ve always had a picture of you in my head,” he tells her. Like Hamlet, he invokes the lens of his mind’s eye to capture the surreal effect she has on him. He tells her that she is his “one and only co-star” in the movie of life, but he admits toward the end that his life “had never been meant to be a coherent movie—rising action, climax and denouement. It was a reel filled with unconnected frames. A reel of isolated sublime moments through which I would eternally sift, stopping the camera in my mind on a frame here, a frame there, rerunning the reel, reveling in each and every detail in one of my sacred frames again and again…and then putting it back with all the others in some disorganized way that I now knew would never produce a thread of frames that could be woven into an intelligible story.” Not so Nemec’s fictional tale.
The author, who lives in Eastport and was once the recipient of an Edward Albee Foundation grant, writes with authority (an online bio notes, among other jobs, that he once worked as a parole officer, in addition to teaching English). He also writes with poetic grace, though some may find Raber’s existential notes from the underground depressing.