book review: An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis

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AN ARROW’S FLIGHT by Mark Merlis
★★★★★
St. Martin’s Press, 1998

I loved this book, but I’m not really sure who I’d recommend it to. Having some kind of knowledge or passion for Greek mythology seems requisite going in – I can’t imagine getting much enjoyment out of this if you aren’t familiar with the original stories that Merlis is adapting and expounding on and subverting – but this is not your run of the mill Homeric retelling.

You start the novel with Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, and you think you’re going to Troy. That’s how the story goes, anyway – Achilles dies, Pyrrhus takes his place as leader of the Myrmidons, and with the bow of Philoctetes, Pyrrhus takes Troy. Mark Merlis has other plans.

What starts as a (granted, wildly unconventional) retelling of the tale of Pyrrhus quickly morphs into something bigger, via a detour to Sophocoles’ Philoctetes – an allegorical commentary on the AIDS crisis in 1980s America. And it’s just weird enough that it works, beautifully. This is a quietly powerful and unsettling story that starts with the Trojan War and ends up having a lot to say about fate and free will and gay identity.

We’re held at arm’s length from our anti-hero Pyrrhus for the majority of this story. Self-centered, lazy, and apathetic, Pyrrhus is ostensibly difficult to root for. And yet. He gets under your skin, as do all of Merlis’s characters. In that way, this isn’t necessarily an easy book to love. It’s deliberately provocative and graphic, and it shows an ugliness to human nature that isn’t easy to stare in the face. But it’s an even stronger achievement for that, I think. Merlis is able to take this dark and cynical story and infuse it with just enough hope and romance that you’re compelled to see it through to the end – with beautiful payoff once you do.

Merlis’s prose is witty, droll, and surprisingly incisive. It ranges from mildly amusing to positively breathtaking. There were so many lines I had to stop and reread just to take in the full effect. Passages like this:

Did they just not believe it, the Trojans? Or did they believe it the way you believe you’re going to die? With certainty and utter incredulity so perfectly balanced that they fight to a draw, leaving the ignorant animal in you free to get out of bed in the morning.

And this:

The most terrifying thing that could happen to anyone: to have to stand there and hear, from someone who knew everything, the worst you’ve ever thought about yourself.

If you’re looking for a modern but slightly more straightforward Greek mythology retelling, try The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller) or Ransom (David Malouf) or Alcestis (Katherine Beutner) or Bright Air Black (David Vann). If you’re looking for a powerful gay epic that touches on the AIDS crisis, try Angels in America (Tony Kushner) or The Heart’s Invisible Furies (John Boyne) or Tell the Wolves I’m Home (Carol Rifka Brunt). If your interests are niche enough that you’re looking for a combination, boy do I have some great news for you about An Arrow’s Flight.