YOUNG PEOPLE TEND to see a Golden Age in the future, a bright spot on a distant horizon. Those more advanced in years, beyond the point where unbridled optimism gives way to bridled determinism, see a Golden Age in the past. For his debut novel Muse, poet and translator Jonathan Galassi has his eyes firmly fixed in the rearview mirror, as he propels his readers forward on a thought-provoking, often hilarious, bittersweet ride. That he manages to keep his literary Uber on the road and out of the ditches is a tribute to his skill as a writer and storyteller.

What Galassi sees, as it grows smaller and less distinct behind him, is the world of book publishing in New York City in the last half of the last century and into the aughts, when the digital and online tidal wave surged ashore with full force. The strand on which the characters in Muse — novelists, poets, editors, and publishers — unspool his story is a space that Galassi knows intimately; his adult professional life has been spent in publishing as editor-in-chief, then as president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the best-of-breed New York house known for its vast literary output and Nobel Prize-winning stable of writers. 

Galassi’s extensive knowledge of the book business may explain why, occasionally, the background in Muse overcomes the foreground. However, even his excursions into the details of publishing as it once was are worthwhile, the equivalent of being taken out to the cherry orchard to learn about yield per tree and price per pound, facts made poignant by the knowledge that soon the trees will be gone.

Muse is a kind of mystery: not so much a who-done-it but a more satisfying who-felt-it, who-experienced-it, who-saw-it-for-what-it-really-was. The protagonist, Paul Dukach, is a young boy growing up in one of the many pallookavilles in upstate New York. Fortunately, three things save Paul from soul-destroying provincialism: his love of reading; his high school job working at the local bookstore, owned by a freethinking woman who encourages Paul’s otherness; and what will become an enduring obsession for the work and life of the country’s most famous living poet, Ida Perkins. Paul ends up at NYU and then in book publishing, where his life becomes entwined with those of two legendary publishers, Homer Stern and Sterling Wainright. They in turn are closely connected to Ida Perkins; Wainright is her second cousin and publisher, Stern publishes Arnold Outerbridge, a famous Stalinist poet and one of Ida’s many husbands. Both publishers are rumored to have bedded the shagadelic Perkins and are in constant battle: Stern to steal Ida away to his publishing house, Wainright to keep her tucked in safely at his, with Paul often caught in the middle. Meanwhile, Paul begins a journey that, over the course of the book, takes him from New York to Ida’s palazzo in Venice and back, searching for answers, some perhaps hidden in a coded manuscript, to two questions: who was his muse, Ida Perkins, and why did he need to love her so?

Muse is also a roman à clef, and its pages are populated with characters both real and imagined. Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway are mentioned in the same breath with fictional characters, some based on real legendary lions, such as Roger Straus and James Laughlin. Galassi even tips his hat to some of his contemporary confrères, distributing their last names among his characters (Schwalbe, Entrekin, Friedman). Anyone intimate with New York publishing can use Muse as a kind of parlor game for rainy nights; put out the brie, pour the Chablis, and try to find Lynn, Binky, Mort, Esther, and Sonny hiding in the pages. 

Yet somehow, Galassi prevents his journey from becoming too sentimental, offering instead top-shelf satire in the portrait he paints of the narcissism and pettiness that still is New York publishing — the jealousy and backstabbing among writers, the faux-intellectual preening and dirt-dishing by the editors, the cravenness and hypocrisy of the publishers. Clearly, Galassi loves opera buffa, but he is only lunging and parrying with an épée, not swinging a scimitar; the cuts go not too deep. While his characters may do foolish things, they are not fools, and he does not treat them as such. Foibles aside, Paul, Stern, Wainwright, and Perkins are committed to something much bigger than their egos — Literature with a capital L, enduring works that change opinions, politics, culture, and lives.

Unlike his mentors and muse, however, Paul comes late to the party. He arrives in New York City in the 1990s, just as a thinly veiled Amazon and the digital revolution are beginning to change publishing. The real story of that time is well known by now: smaller literary houses close; big commercial houses consolidate, cut their lists, and lay off editors to survive; advances for writers free fall; independent bookstores die out; and Seattle slowly replaces New York as a synonym for American publishing. For the characters in Muse, a kind of life that was supposed to last forever starts to slip away. 

A character is always more compelling when he or she is enduring an existential crisis while the ground shifts underfoot, and that is certainly the case with Paul. The potential unraveling of his future toward the end of the novel makes the need to untangle his past, and Ida’s, all the more immediate and meaningful for the reader. The poet in Galassi brings an elegiac quality to the novel’s themes of love, loss, and reading in just the right amount, adding depth and richness to a bravura first novel.

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Robert B. Wallace, an award-winning TV producer and magazine editor, has more than 30 years experience in print and electronic media. He serves as Treasurer on the Board of Directors of PEN Center USA.