Pinch Bavinsky, the title character in Tom Rachman’s latest novel, is the son of artist Bear Bavinsky. Born in 1950s Italy, Pinch remembers Bear as a big personality when he moved in with Pinch and his mother, Natalie, a fledgling potter. But Bear’s residence with Natalie and Pinch was brief. Soon, he was off to a new wife and children, and then another, and another. Always on to another place, where he became the center of all activity and everyone accepted his whims and anxieties. Because he’s an artist and needs everyone to be sensitive to him.
Still, throughout his life, Pinch sought his father’s attention and approval. As an adolescent, he took up painting and his mother believed he had talent, but it was Bear’s approval that mattered. The same when he had his first girlfriend or tried his hand at art criticism. Part of him seemed to understand that Bear was terrible, but that didn’t matter. Eventually, he’s able to settle only when he chooses a life far from his father’s interests, by becoming an Italian teacher. But that’s never his passion. He’s still haunted by the need to follow Bear, somehow.
It took me a while to warm up to this book. All of the characters are terrible in one way or another, but Bear most of all. And it was painful to see Pinch and everyone else kowtowing to Bear’s desires. It’s well-written and everything, but, ugh, so painful. And stories of brilliant male assholes being catered to by everyone are just pretty much off the menu for me.
But then, about halfway through, the book takes a turn and becomes much more interesting. Pinch makes a choice that puts him in direct contradiction with anything Bear would want, but he manages to keep it a secret. And after his father’s death, he keeps finding other ways to secretly subvert his father’s wishes. It’s liberating in a way, but it also keeps Pinch thoroughly in Bear’s shadow.
This move adds an element of much-needed suspense, as well as complicated questions about the relationship between art and artists. Rachman also uses this plot development to satirize the world of art criticism and the way judgments are as much about money and reputation as about actual artistic merit. The whole thing ends up being a lot of fun.