The Body of Jonah Boyd is probably one of his best works – literary, erudite with an eye for the ironic, the novel is both delectably charming, while also managing to say something about the importance of home and the nature of writing. The story is narrated by Judith (Denny) Denham, secretary to Professor Ernest Wright, a Freudian in the psychology department at Wellspring, a fictional university. The tale opens, on Thanksgiving 1969, where Denny is being a sort of third wheel or domestic assistant to the Wright family: She's Ernest's mistress as well as his secretary, the four-hand piano partner of his wife, Nancy, and a general dog's body around the house. She's taken for granted and generally bossed about.
Denny is an astonishingly perceptive character – she'd deeply flawed with a low self-esteem, but from the beginning there's a sharp contrast between the family's perception of Denny and her sharp view of what's really going on. The Wrights see her as "sexless spinster, or short of that, a lesbian" when, in fact, she has no trouble at all embarking on sexual escapades with men, including Ernest. Denny is always watching the family: she witnesses Ernest and Nancy's arguments, she offers support when their older son, Mark, flees to Canada to avoid the draft, and colludes with their daughter, Daphne, when she sneaks out of the house to meet her lover. Denny thinks the Wrights have invited her to into their family to make her the subject of some strange social experiment. Yet their motives for embracing her are far more individual: Nancy needs her to be a failure, Ernest needs her as an alternative to Nancy, and Daphne seems to need her as a confidante.
On the Thanksgiving of 1969, Nancy's old friend Anne comes for a visit, bringing along her new husband, the novelist Jonah Boyd. After dinner Anne proceeds to get drunk while, Boyd reads from the first chapter of his new novel, which he's writing in a series of beautiful notebooks. He has no other copy, and he's forever misplacing the notebooks. After Boyd dazzles everyone with his reading, the Wrights' younger son, Ben, shares a sample of his own work, a distinctly anticlimactic poem. Boyd takes Ben under his wing, even reading to him from the prized notebooks. But when it's time to leave, the manuscript is nowhere to be found. Boyd's masterwork is lost.
The second half of the novel is full of surprises and revelations that gradually reveal the secret of what actually happened to the notebooks. The story, full of ingenious plot twists, is interwoven with that of the Wrights' house, which itself emerges as an important character. According to Nancy the house "can be more than an assemblage of bricks and cement and shingles and it is not so different from believing in a guardian angel." The Body of Jonah Boyd remains a quite astonishing and compulsively readable tour de force. Leavitt has a slow-paced, richly descriptive, almost acerbic tone, which is perfection to read. And his subtly differentiated characters attach themselves to us and won't let go. This is a sweet, funny, almost melancholy novel, afloat in whimsy and affection, while also talking in mysterious ways about sex, frustration, the home, and the various shapes and sizes of unquenchable longing. Mike Leonard August 04.