The Worm and the Butterfly:
A review of The Nominal Theory of Good Art by William McCauley
You may ask yourself, as I did before I started reading William McCauley's latest book, what the hell does this title mean? Is this a scientific work? A book of critical essays? Is this a treatise on Art in general? Well The Nominal Theory of Good Art is none of those things. Instead, title notwithstanding, it is a novel; a funny, biting satire that gnaws at the core of how we as a society value art and artistic talent.
Wally Walder is a technical publications manager at a Seattle based company, whose chief hobbies, as a sexagenarian, are watching Matlock and Mayberry RFD reruns on TV and playing cards with his buddy Roy. His doughty wife, Ethel, and septic-tank-pumping son, George are dismayed one day to discover that, after a terrible accident involving a bathroom door, their beloved Wally is not the same celluloid-loving homebody they're comfortable with. He begins seeing shapes and colors differently, sketches everything that interests him and wanders aimlessly exploring endlessly fascinating polygonal possibilities. Until he wanders into a downtown art gallery. Meanwhile, across town, a struggling artist, Charles Gas, continues to pursue his career possibilities with an old girlfriend, Janice, who also happens to own an art gallery (guess which one). Thus, the juxtaposition of McCauley's romp is set
McCauley introduces the reader to a bevy of caricatured characters throughout this intricately plotted farce. There is the lovable yet face-tattooed Boyce; the arrogant and reviled art critic, Dillip; the naive art prodigy, Carnita Vovo and her astrologically challenged, controlling mother; the art collecting oddball dentist, Tim Leuter; and George's faith-based wife, Wanda, whose answer to everything is : "Let's pray on it."
The novel, though sometimes mired in clumsy prose, ultimately succeeds in delivering a scathing critique of the art gallery scene, where poseur critics may influence just which art sells and which doesn't, merely by the familiar and fashionable signature/label in the corner of the painting. Hence, the frustrated Charles Gas's "Nominal Theory of Good Art" is born. The book also reveals the ironic means by which we foster artistic talent in this country. Wally is a nuisance, and a liability to his family and to his employer; a threat to some of his contemporaries in the art world and a gold mine to others; he is, as Roy observes, "a worm turned into a butterfly."
McCauley, whose previous works include, The Turning Over, a novel set in Sierra Leone and two short story collections, plumbs new depths with this latest effort. The Nominal Theory of Good Art is no scientific treatise, as the title may suggest, it is a searingly thoughtful and inspired tale that still manages to tease out laughter throughout. I look forward to subsequent literary releases from this talented writer.