Did the Motown singer Jimmy Ruffin ever find out what becomes of the brokenhearted? He knew he had to find some piece of mind, but did he ever actually do it? We may never know. And although his heartbreak was most likely caused by an ex-lover, it’s a question that any kind of sad or downtrodden person must ask: What does become of the brokenhearted? What do they do? Will the pain ever go away?
The Burrs, Joseph and his son Owen, are both brokenhearted in Will Chancellor’s gorgeous debut novel, A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall. Owen — tall and handsome, the captain of Stanford’s water polo team — is on his way to Olympic glory, and seems to have a pretty easy path ahead of him until an accident leaves him without an eye, and he’s forced to reassess everything. His father, meanwhile, is a widowed professor who drinks too much.
After Owen’s dreams are shattered, he decides to give it all up and go to Berlin to become an artist, despite his lack of artistic talent, leaving only a letter to his father about how he’s going to figure out which half of his life he wants to waste. Joseph is a Classics professor who, Chancellor slyly points out, teaches at a school that “had tried for decades to bury the Classics and Ancient History building.” He’s watching time slip by as he teaches about times past; Owen up and leaving prompts him to reassess things, and go out searching Europe for his son, who is hanging out with the art world’s most famous scumbag of the hour.
A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall is a book about people who have had their hearts broken in different ways, and what becomes of them as they run away to deal with their grief. It’s an ambitious book, one filled with Greek myths and art-world jargon, the type of stylistic siren song that could lure a writer into dangerous waters, turning a great story into a pretentious bore. Chancellor never lets that happen; he shows great poise and command with this elegant and highly enjoyable first novel, which suggests that he has even more greatness to offer us.