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Review

Rafael Yglesias' 'Wisdom of Perversity' works its way under the skin

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Rafael Yglesias' novel 'The Wisdom of Perversity' is compelling but veers into melodrama, writes @Davidulin

Partway through Rafael Yglesias' 10th novel, "The Wisdom of Perversity," a screenwriter named Brian Moran chides himself, "Don't be a hack writer. … Not everyone is a fragile flower like you." The occasion is his first meeting after many years with Julie Mark, who, like Brian, was molested as a child; both have grown up damaged, unable to love or be loved.

There is a third victim also, Julie's cousin and Brian's childhood best friend, Jeff, now an A-list film director. The three have been brought back together by allegations about their molester, Richard Klein, and his former protege, Sam Rydel, who are embroiled in an abuse scandal involving a new generation of kids.

And yet, for all that Brian's admonition is a useful one — don't tie up this story with too neat a bow — "The Wisdom of Perversity" falls into precisely such a trap, framing the adult lives of its characters as the stuff of melodrama, the lines direct between dysfunction and trauma, the sins of the present and those of the past.

"You see," Brian adds, "I'm not the hack. God is. And the Old Fart doesn't know how to write a conclusion that'll satisfy his audience. He leaves that to us, his lost children, doing his dirty work, inventing uplifting endings to erase his mistakes."

Were "The Wisdom of Perversity" a more fulfilling novel, this might suggest a fascinating tension, between the world as we wish it were and as it is. What Yglesias is saying is that it is incumbent on us to create meaning for ourselves. At the same time, such meaning is a temporary shelter against the chaos at the center of every life. Still, despite such awareness, "The Wisdom of Perversity" moves toward its own uplifting ending, in which even the hardest, most treacherous experiences are ultimately redeemed.

That's no knock on the novel's intentions, which are as fine as they come. Inspired by Yglesias' own history of childhood sexual abuse, it seeks to address the complexities from the inside, to reveal how humanity can be twisted into many forms.

Yglesias, however, may be too close to the material — although that has not been an issue in the past. His first novel, "Hide Fox, And All After," written when he was still a teenager, comes steeped in the story of his unhappy tenure as a prep school student, while his most recent, "A Happy Marriage" (which won a 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize), closely follows his first marriage, culminating in the death of his wife.

With this new book, however, distance appears hard to come by. Brian and Jeff grow up together in a Queens building, where Klein — Jeff's adult cousin and an NBC executive — uses his status in the family to gain access to the boys. Four decades later, they are shaken by revelations that Klein and Rydel have used a charity for underprivileged kids to recruit victims (shades of Jerry Sandusky), and after Rydel's accusers recant, they must decide whether to go public about their abuse.

Jeff has the most to lose: Oscar-nominated, a director of big-budget blockbusters, he must be persuaded to step out from behind the facade. That's a compelling conflict, the difficulty of speaking out, but it gets lost in the movement of the book.

At times, "The Wisdom of Perversity" feels like a detective novel as the characters try to comprehend the depth of Klein and Rydel's depravity. Yglesias makes the connection explicit by shifting back and forth from 1966, when we witness the molestation, to 2008, when it comes to a reckoning.

Among the most disturbing sequences is a 31-page set piece that describes Klein fondling Julie on his lap, in a room full of grown-ups including her father. That he is so brazen, and that no one seems to notice, becomes a vivid signifier of both the insulation of the abuser and the powerlessness of the abused.

"The room was crowded," Yglesias writes. "She was surrounded. … Her father and Noah were a few feet behind, the other adults were on the far side of the bed, parallel to her, not able to see her but very near, while Klein's fingers crept under her panties, making funny little taps along the way down as if he were playing Little Piggy with a baby."

Horrific, revolting, extremely creepy — this is writing that works its way inside our skin. So why can't all of "The Wisdom of Perversity" do that? The answer, I think, is that in bringing his characters to adulthood, Yglesias moves, necessarily, from the abuse to its effect. And effect … well, effect is hard to quantify, to render in anything but impressions, glances from the corner of an eye.

Certainly, this is part of the purview of any novel, to take us into places that can't be articulated. It is the paradox and the challenge of great fiction: that it finds a way to express, in the flawed constraints of language, that which cannot be expressed.

"The Wisdom of Perversity," however, is not about these ambiguities; it is a tale told in black and white. It too easily traces a line between Brian or Julie's childhood experiences and their ensuing problems with intimacy, sexual or otherwise.

As for Jeff, he has sublimated everything into his movies, "learned the wisdom of perversity and made his lonely secret into art." That's a lovely fantasy — both in regard to wisdom and to art — but like the novel to which it gives title, it feels a little more a matter of wish fulfillment than of reality.

david.ulin@latimes.com

The Wisdom Of Perversity
A Novel

Rafael Yglesias
Algonquin: 368 pp., $25.95

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