Jewish novelist Myron Brinig, the central character in Earl Ganz’s The Taos Truth Game, falls in love when landscape painter Cady Wells explains how to draw a curve. Taking Brinig’s index finger, Wells tells him to close his eyes and imagine he’s stroking the neck of a goose. Several moments later, after each man has shared how he first acknowledged his homosexuality, Wells comes back to the subject of art. This time he equates painting with shaving pubic hair. Brinig responds: “I think I like stroking the neck of a goose better.”
Ganz, a former creative writing professor at UM, agrees with Brinig—as a metaphor for truth, he’ll take the goose’s neck over the razor any day. In Ganz’s second work of fiction, truth is more a swish than a straight line to the facts; it’s equal parts evasion and candor. While comparing truth-telling to a game risks the most banal sort of cliché, Ganz manages this and several other tricky matters with great finesse. Instead of trite exposé we get an important book that gambols about the fickle alliances in a Depression-era Taos artists’ community while at the same time restoring a once nationally famous Butte writer to history.
Hailed with Thomas Wolfe in the 1930s as the future of American literature, Brinig and his 21 novels have since been forgotten. The Taos Truth Game aims to change that. The book is a rare achievement in that it is at once engaging fiction and, in its way, interesting scholarship. The lives of the literary and artistic figures that appear in cameos throughout the book have been fictionalized, but part of Ganz’s project, which he carries off perhaps more successfully than his narrative, is to disinter Brinig and encourage readers to have a look at his best books.
Set in the 1930s, primarily in Mabel Dodge Luhan’s salon, Truth Game examines both the failure of Cady and Myron’s love and the jealousies—petty and grandiose—of the immensely rich and talented. As Ang Lee did with Brokeback Mountain, Ganz laments the dissolution of a relationship, albeit with more eros and humor, in the face of societal prejudice and one man’s insistence on secrecy. Though the pressure here is far less extreme, Brinig hesitates to buy a house with Cady and objects to his dying day when others disclose his sexuality. Unlike in Lee’s film, however, Ganz can draw on a community’s worth of material to offset the weight of his primary subject. He does so by documenting the outrageous behavior of Luhan’s famous visitors, including Frieda Lawrence (with husband D.H.’s ashes), Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, poet Robinson Jeffers, radical muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, playwright Thornton Wilder and Wolfe himself.
The various strands and themes of the novel find their locus in Mabel’s truth game. According to the rules, in its first and most tame iteration anyway, a person must stand in the middle of the drawing room and answer any question, no matter how embarrassing. That person then calls another to the fore. The best responses are honest but confess nothing. As is the case with any interesting game, though, the rules change to make things pricklier. At Myron’s urging, instead of posing questions verbally to one person at a time, each player is granted 10 minutes to write anything truthful he wishes about anyone in the room. The guests then take turns reading their passages. The charge here is not to embarrass or insult, though both certainly happen, but instead to render the truth with wit. Since the contestants are such gifted writers, the samplings are delicious.
Soon enough, the game leaves the parlor and enters the private lives of the characters. Here the questions become more exacting. How do you account for your whereabouts when a lover returns from China? How do you tell someone who won’t commit to you that you have a new lover? What do you tell a friend whose book is really bad? Do you publish a career-salvaging manuscript exposing a benefactor’s deepest secret?
Though it may seem that Ganz is steering a course toward melodrama, the comic treatment of some of the novel’s literary stars checks this movement. An urn containing D.H. Lawrence’s ashes rotates among the characters, and, it is believed, some of the great man’s cremains find their way into the evening soup. One of the Taos poets dumps a beer on Robert Frost’s head. Even the formidable Gertrude Stein suffers an indignity: a young Ivy League grad, seeking to do Stein homage, recites one of her erotic poems in a singsong voice. First there are titters and giggles but before long the whole room explodes in laughter. Stein is mortified.
If Ganz’s book has any weakness it is that these cameos intrude too much on the main love story, and that the luminaries, much as they’ve done in literary history, crowd out Brinig. But however extended they may be, these diversions never fail to entertain. What’s more, they lend to Ganz’s serious work a thrilling air of scandal and remind us that at times the truth meanders. It is not an abrupt slash cut with a razor’s edge.