We're a literary community: Fiction writers make their homes in bay area
In a way, Lisa Birnbaum's novel Worthy fits into one of the hottest genres of the moment: the crime novel with a wildly unreliable female narrator, a la Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and all those other shifty young ladies.
But in Worthy, the mystery is less a matter of crime than of identity. Its title is one of the names of its narrator, although only one. She's also known as Ludmila, and Katrina, and who knows what other monikers. "I shouldn't be trusted," she says, "which I have told you as I beg you to believe me."
This is the first novel by Birnbaum, a University of Tampa professor who is also a nonfiction and short story writer, poet and spoken word performer.
The reader listens in as Worthy tells her looping, elliptical story to an unnamed acquaintance in the quieter hours at the Tampa strip club where she works. A beauty but middle-aged (and a sharp observer of what that means), Worthy is occasionally a stripper but mostly a den mother and manager, and the lover of the club's owner.
Pieced together from nonlinear fragments, Worthy's life story begins somewhere in Eastern Europe (where, or what her last name is, she doesn't say) but really starts when in her youth she hooks up with an American professor of English twice her age named Theodore.
Their charmed life in New York City only gets better after a bizarre kerfuffle in an academic meeting sends him off on sabbatical. The pair turn into unlikely con artists, traveling around Mexico, Europe and more, making up new identities and scamming all sorts of people. Their life of crime has a literary basis in Theodore's admiration of what he calls the Four Books: Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull, Melville's The Confidence Man, Nabokov's Despair and Camus' The Fall, a syllabus that provides perhaps the most erudite excuse ever for ripping off rich people.
Enfolded in those adventures as well as Worthy's tales of another marriage and an abandoned child is the mystery of what happened to Theodore and how that led Worthy to Tampa.
Birnbaum painstakingly re-creates Worthy's limited English skills on the page. Sometimes her scrambled syntax adds impact: "And if we have cry over a lover, missing or losing him, between the eyes will show in those crinkles that never let go the darkness. If we get a Botox, the history of hardest sex and best love will be lost." At other times, though, especially given that it's maintained for the entire novel, it's simply laborious to decipher; narrative written in dialect or accented English tends to work best when its touch is light rather than demanding.
By Colette Bancroft
Published by the Tampa Bay Times