Originally published Saturday, August 6, 2011 at 7:06 PM

Book review

'Tony and Susan': a resurrected novel of love and marriage, divorce and payback

Austin Wright's 1993 novel "Tony and Susan" came and went without much notice. Then an English publisher rediscovered it. Now this chilling story of marriage, divorce and payback is available again in America.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Tony and Susan'

by Austin Wright

Grand Central Publishing, 326 pp., $24.99

"Tony and Susan" is the unassuming title of an American novel first published in 1993 that came and went without making much of a wave.

The book's author, Austin Wright, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, also died quietly — at the age of 80, in 2003. So with his seven novels: All seemed destined for the graveyard of the unread where most fiction goes.

But then last year a publisher in England rediscovered the book and published it to critical praise and sales that were decent enough to vault it back across the Atlantic.

Bravo for second chances, because fiction seldom gets this good. And Wright's story-within-a-story, on sale Thursday, gives readers a two-for-one, the page-turning attributes of a thriller paired with a recollection of things past that shows how one woman manages life's insults.

We start with Susan Morrow, a college teacher, who has just received a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield. The delivery represents a coup de grace of sorts, his defiant signoff to their shared history and long-gone relationship, which faltered on his failed attempts to become a writer. Susan dumped on his work and then on him in favor of Arnold, her current husband and father of her children. Now she sits down to read her ex's belated accomplishment.

Enter Tony Hastings. He's the Mr. Peeps protagonist of Edward's novel, "Nocturnal Animals," a professor not unlike Wright himself was. Tony divides his placid life between the Ohio college where he teaches and a summer place in Maine. As the story opens, Tony; his wife, Laura; and their daughter, Helen, are, in fact, headed for their summer retreat. But fate (or, rather, Edward) has other plans: Late at night, they encounter a car on the highway that first plays chicken with Tony's and then forces him off the road.

The good professor understands immediately that he has entered another dimension: "The man came close enough for Tony to smell the onions with something sweet and liquory, his face level with Tony's, and though he was thin, Tony knew the man could destroy him. He took a step backward but the man closed the gap. It's the age difference, Tony said to himself, not adding that he had not been in a fight since he was a boy and never won one then. I live in a different world, he almost said to himself."

Almost, but not quite.

The tragedy that unfolds, as vivid and predictable as sensational crimes that make headlines, reveals Tony as the man who thinks too much. He's too ponderous and intellectual to act quickly and outsmart those who operate on impulse. Meanwhile, Susan can't stop reading, even though Edward's story provokes a mental struggle of her own.

Her mind, so "full of order and regime," slips backward in time, recognizing matters left unspoken or only partly resolved with Edward and, perhaps more importantly, Arnold. She fights the unsettling truths as they emerge:

"It's not just that they, with their children, house, car, dog, cat, engraved checks and writing paper, have created an institution like a bank, it's that the world is cold, lonely, and dangerous, and they need each other for shelter. Tony in his plight should appreciate how fiercely she clings. He should."

What Wright accomplishes here is to create two believable characters and draw their unlikely parallels. True, Tony is caught up in a violent whirlwind, which Susan observes vicariously from the safety of her couch. But both find their words and thoughts insufficient to control damaging events. Life often works like that, one way or the other.

Edward (or, rather, Austin Wright) knows what he's doing. Revenge is best served cold, as the old saying goes. "Tony and Susan" delivers his payback with a vengeance, through the power of fiction.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."

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