A man walks down a pier on the Jersey shore alone at night, leans on a decrepit railing and falls through into the black waves below. Just as his strength gives out, he feels a pair of arms around him -- a rescue. He owes his life to another man. This strange debt -- analyzed, negotiated, shirked -- is the molten center of Valerie Martin's subtle but intense seventh novel, "The Confessions of Edward Day."
Set in New York theatrical circles in the 1970s, it follows an ambitious young actor, Day, as he tries to make his name even as he's dogged at every step by his look-alike rival, Guy Margate, who happened to have once saved Edward's life.
It's the heyday of method acting, and those who can't afford classes with Stella Adler study with a host of lesser lights, as well as minutely examining their own emotions. Any feeling is an opportunity to grasp the authentic -- the better to reproduce it on stage. After his first ecstatic encounter with Madeleine Delavergne, a fellow actor who will eventually become his girlfriend, Edward discovers that his desire has already lost its edge, replaced by "a comfortable, familiar smugness." He studies this: "I delved into every nuance of my emotions, ambling about in search of the conjunction between the mental and the physical. An actor's emotions are his textbook. I perceived that my forehead was tight, my upper lips stretched down and pursed slightly over my lower lip. Who am I? I asked."
That Edward does not learn who he is, let alone who Guy and Madeleine are, doesn't undermine the power of this process. Through it, Edward becomes a convincing actor, adept at channeling the emotions of real life into his performances. Naturally the "real" gets a little smudged and tattered as a result, and Edward requires jolts of strong emotion -- chiefly jealousy -- to feel much at all.
Still, clarity breaks through. One day in class, in what Edward calls "the improv that changed my life," he is assigned to portray a young man who has to steal from his mother in order to get to Japan, that day, to become a monk. In his teacher Marlene's wallet, left out for him as a prop, Edward spots a nude photograph of her. This shock derails what would have been a standard, forgettable performance. Then Marlene, portraying the mother, comes at him with a plank and he collapses, begging. "For that one moment when I fell to the floor in terror and shame," he remembers, "I'd found that for which we all strove, a pure emotion expressed in my own person. There had been no space between my character and myself. . . . Anyone watching understood that something real had happened in the last place one might expect to find it, inside an actor, on stage."
The intimacy of Edward's narrative voice is one of the novel's most startling achievements. We gradually cease to like our main character, yet we stagger after him, captivated. Martin's symbolic substructure -- layers of repetition and mirroring -- is so skillfully embedded in her story that we feel its effects without realizing it, like an understated but persuasive musical score.
Edward's friend Teddy has a theory about the importance of actors in the survival of the human species: "Actors, he maintained, are impostors and imposture is an evolutionary strategy for survival. He described the butterfly whose wings so resemble a leaf that even water spots and fungal dots are mimicked, a perfect imitation of random imperfection." Actors are selected for survival, which explains why ordinary people both admire and revile them. Of course, survival in the theater world requires a more conscious adaptation -- in fact, a relentless thrust. This is what Edward gets from his rivalry with Guy. Although Guy is more openly hostile, Edward nurses his wounded pride about the drowning rescue. He tries to dismiss Guy as a mimic, rather than a true actor, but when Guy lands an enviable part, Edward hurls himself into a frenzy of auditioning that results in two callbacks and his first role in months.
Later, when Guy suddenly marries Edward's neglected girlfriend, Madeleine, this lights an everlasting flame for the girl that drives the rest of the novel's tragic action.
Martin's grasp of the theater world of the period -- a pre-AIDS bohemia of cheap rent and earnest artistic exploration -- is as sure as her re-creation of Victorian England in "Mary Reilly." One never gets the sense that this is a "historical novel," packed with colorful but extraneous detail. In fact, her details are masterful in their spareness. Edward's voice is the anchor, and even if he proves to be, at heart, a little less than "real," we are more than willing to hear him out.
Marler is the editor of "Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America on to Sex."