Books: The Tower of Benito

A novelist imagines II Duce building the ultimate monument—to himself.

The Eighth Wonder of the World
By Leslie Epstein
Handsel Books, $24.95


"The Eighth Wonder of the World"
By Leslie Epstein

Credit: Books

Imagine a brilliant American architect whose life story reads like a scandal sheet ripped from the biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ezra Pound. Endow this character with the fatuous arrogance of Percy Shelley's Ozymandias, king of kings, and an oddball humor that crosses the antic punning of Groucho Marx with the hayseed sensibility of Will Rogers. (For starters, there's "Il Doozy" for Il Duce, "Mice Vender Rolls" for Mies van der Rohe, and "Grope-your-ass" for Gropius.)

Next, plunk him down in the middle of Fascist Italy, introduce him to Benito Mussolini, and set in motion a scheme to build a monument that outstrips even the excesses of Adolf Hitler's infamous architect Albert Speer.

Amos Prince is the colossus who bestrides the pages of Leslie Epstein's absorbing new novel, The Eighth Wonder of the World. Like Wright, the fictional Prince has pursued numerous love affairs and suffered the tragic death of two young children in the criminal arson of his bucolic studio-home.  Like the pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic Pound, Prince finds a haven in Mussolini's Italy, where he commits treason in the form of anti-American radio broadcasts and, after the war, eludes prison through an extended stay in St. Elizabeths Hospital.

But unlike either real-life character, Prince wins a commission from Mussolini to build an improbably soaring mile-high tower, dubbed La Vittoria, to commemorate the conquest of Ethiopia. Is such an engineering feat even possible? Prince's worshipful assistant, the assimilated Jew Max Shabilian, so preoccupies himself with finding the right building materials and mathematical ratios to execute this architectural coup that he becomes blind to the project's political intent and participates in such dubious celebrations as a champagne party with Il Duce and Hitler's high command aboard the Hindenburg.

Only when he awakens to the plight of Italy's Jews (not to mention his own perilous position) does Shabilian attempt to devise a Schindler's List-like work force for La Vittoria—ostensibly to bring the building to completion, really to save as many Jews as possible. In his own mad obsession, Shabilian reconceives Prince as Pharaoh, La Vittoria as a modern-day pyramid, and himself as Moses.

Epstein—director of the creative writing program at Boston University—is best known for a previous novel, King of the Jews, set in Poland during the Holocaust. There, as in The Eighth Wonder of the World, Epstein uses broad strokes of comic pastiche to emphasize the absurd grandiosity of characters whose exercises in narcissism play out against the grim crescendo of World War II and the Holocaust. The impact is at first disorienting: rather than villains, historical characters like Speer and Mussolini come across as operatic oafs. By novel's end, though, the circuslike entourage over which the dictatorial Prince presides more closely resembles an inferno.

Epstein vividly captures the spectacle of Fascist Italy, describing grand parades choreographed like a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza. But oddly missing from Epstein's panorama is a feeling for architecture itself. We never are made to see the revolutionary buildings that brought Prince his fame and glory—they are described only in passing—and La Vittoria looms more as abstract symbol than monument under construction.

Because it is Prince's mad hubris that interests Epstein, not his originality as an architect, we must take it on faith that Prince really does (or did) possess artistic genius at a world-class level. Too bad, because if only Epstein had succeeded in showing us that, too, what a wonder this novel would be.  

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