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01.30.08

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All Shall Be Well;

and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

By Richard von Busack


The Eggersesque title of Todd Wodicka's novel is actually a quote from the mystic Julian of Norwich, supposedly the first female writer to publish in the English language. The hapless main character, Burt Hecker, usually so good with history, wrongly dates Julian's essay on sin as being written a century before Julian was actually born. Forgive him, he drinks heavily. An upstate New York medievalist with a nose like a decayed parsnip, the 62-year-old Hecker is fleeing from a present that has never done him any favors. An old widower now, better known under his Ye Olde Historical Gathering handle of "Eckbert Attquiet," Burt has cashed out the family bed and breakfast and is heading for the Rhineland. A mistake: It turns out to be a winey tourist Disneyland of anachronistically rebuilt castles. Thus Burt escapes for Eastern Europe, where his furious estranged son is hiding out, brooding over the old man's unforgivable conduct. Wodicka's theme is the allure of cultural atavism. There are pilgrims throughout his novel, trying to force back the hands of time: Burt, of course; the son who leaves Juilliard for the Carpathians; and a vicious old lady who goes everywhere in the native costume of her people to advertise a forgotten holocaust. Two women bravely resist this great leap backward. One is Burt's wife, who succumbed horribly to cancer; she's a dashing figure, dimly and perhaps inaccurately recalled through the blur of Burt's pain. The other, more lively, is Burt's guardian angel and lawyer, Lonna: "She was that most delightful of anomalies: a sarcastic, ironic, fading flapper of a middle-aged American woman who knew when to drink (all the time), and when to smile (never, unless something horrible was happening)." Wodicka is a delightful anomaly himself: a serene yet uproarious first-timer with a fragrant, unshowy vocabulary. Just slightly over 30, the author still has such a deep well of compassion for middle-aged exiles and failures that he reminds you of Carol Shields. (By Todd Wodicka; Pantheon; 266 pages; $21.95 hardback)


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