January 24, 2008


Madison Avenue Maxi. By Elke Gazzara. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $22.

The History of Swimming. By Kim Powers. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $15.95.

      Memoirs can range from the lighthearted to the extremely intense and depressing. These books may not be quite at those two extremes, but they are pretty close. Madison Avenue Maxi is a mostly cute, photo-packed story, written by former fashion model Elke Gazzara (wife of film actor Ben Gazzara), about the pet dachshund the couple reluctantly adopted when their daughter no longer wanted her. Two jet-setters who are not dog lovers seem an unlikely pair to be the owners of Maxi, but they quickly adapt to her – and she to them. The book is filled with tales of red-carpet walks, museum visits and black-tie dinners (including one with Prince Albert of Monaco), to which Maxi adds her inimitable presence. Madison Avenue Maxi is kept from complete frivolity by the story of the growing bond between dog and humans, and by the genuineness of Maxi’s and Elke Gazzara’s responses when Ben requires treatment for cancer and repeatedly asks Elke for Maxi (“my brain was always looking for a way to sneak her into the intensive care unit”). By and large, though, the book is good-hearted celebrity fluff: “Max had an exciting trip to take with our friend Nancy Merill to her home in Rheinbeck with her two bichon frise, which are slightly smaller but twice as furry as Maxi. Actually they look like little powder puffs.” And not all the attempts at seriousness work: “In addition to the human victims of 9/11, I wondered how many barking heroes were made martyrs on that fateful morning.” The book is mostly for people who, in addition to loving dogs, like hearing anecdotes of celebrity life, such as the Gazzaras’ disappointment that Maxi cannot come to Sweden, which means that Ben will go there while Elke and Maxi “wait for you in Umbria,” and besides, “Lauren Bacall also has a little dog and cannot bring hers either.”

      The world of The History of Swimming, first published in 2006 and now available in paperback, is a very different one, even though it too is largely centered on New York City. This first book by Kim Powers is an account of the life and death of his twin brother, Tim, who was younger by five minutes. Like many twins, Kim and Tim had times of almost intuitive understanding and connection – but they also had plenty of instances, perhaps more of them, of intense competitiveness and something that looks a lot like hatred. Born in Texas, both grew up to move to New York and come out as gay men. But while Kim made an adult life for himself, Tim never did, spiraling down through severe alcoholism and eventually to AIDS, which killed him at the age of 33. The History of Swimming seeks not so much to rehabilitate Tim as to explore the bond that Kim felt and continues to feel for him. It is an extremely personal book and very, very heavy going – not at all the sort of thing to read for enjoyment. At the book’s heart is a mystery of sorts: Tim, addled by alcohol, goes missing, and Kim, who has taken care of his brother during Tim’s frequent breakdowns, knows he has to try to find him. He becomes convinced that the clue to Tim’s disappearance lies in letters that Tim has written to himself over the years – letters that send Kim on a journey back to their Texas home, where he learns the oft-repeated lesson that you can’t really go home again, and that it won’t be there if you try. There is a great deal about religion in the book, as both brothers grapple with whether God exists and, if so, what that implies. There is a great deal of gay angst, too, as when Kim falls for a straight boy and, rejected, writes, “I watched The Shining and thought it was my life. I read Sophie’s Choice and thought I had it worse.” But really, neither Kim nor Tim had it (whatever “it” is) as bad as Kim thinks – their lives are ones of everyday but not extraordinary troubles, and Tim’s disaster, although real, is an everyday one as well. What is missing in The History of Swimming is perspective, a sense of where Kim and Tim fit in the world (whether there is a God watching over it or not). Kim Powers thinks he is telling a story of monumental tragedy, and so he tells it in language befitting such a high purpose. But in fact, it is a tale of pathos, told in overwrought prose.

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