Jasper P. Duckworth is a critic in an alternate universe Chicago for Chicago Shoulders, a New City-like (or, if you will, Third Coast Review-like) publication — the Associate Media Critic, which is to say that he’s assigned to review, wittily and snarkily, television commercials.
But he’s long had his eye on his main chance, hooking his art critic star to a real, bona fide, genius creator of masterpieces. As he says to himself at one point, “Those that can’t do instead champion.”
This day, though, he’s facing the ruination of such hopes, and he sits on a bar stool in ArtBar across the street from the trendier F-Hole and declaims to the few MFA-degree patrons who will pay him any attention:
“Art (big A) is dead. All of you craftsmen, all of you artists with your touch of the poet, you’re wasting your time. It’s over. This period in history is over.”
He takes a glass of water, pours it over his hand and onto the floor: “Just add water. All this gone. Like tears in the rain.”
Yeah, it’s kinda hokey, and, for all his pretentions, the bow-tied Duckworth is pretty hokey. Still, it’s not as if he’s overstating the case.
At this point in David Scott Hay’s rollicking, knowing and wackily thoughtful novel The Fountain, making art has just gotten a whole lot easier. Forget about painstakingly learning technique. Forget about studying at the feet of famed teachers. Forget about reaching deep inside for the creative spark to produce something that can be called art.
It’s a new day, and anyone — absolutely anyone — can make not just art but a true, awe-inspiring, certified masterwork.
Even a 10-year-old brat from Lake Forest like Timothy O’Donnell who, while tinkering with this and that at the BE AN ARTIST™ exhibit on the 2nd floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art, produces a work of such wonder that Duckworth and his colleague from the Los Angeles Times are astonished. Indeed, Duckworth is already thinking of using “the M-word” in his review.
But, moments later, someone else fiddling at the BE AN ARTIST™ exhibit, 72-year-old Tabitha “Tabby” Masterson, has “in a period of 45 minutes created a Work of Art. A masterpiece.” Or, as Duckworth thinks to himself, “Another masterpiece.”
Balancing on her hand the work titled Migration with its long arcing wires around a master post, Tabby walks down the staircase, and
“a hush radiates out until the entire foyer is quiet as a winter’s night. A clique of art students stop their sarcastic commentary. One, two, then six drop to their knees, leaning her way. Towards Tabby. They call her by name. ‘Goddess.’ ”
As Duckworth and everyone else in Chicago’s art world — indeed, the world’s art world — soon discovers, this wonder of sudden artistic genius has nothing to do with the BE AN ARTIST™ exhibit, and everything to do with the water fountain on the MCA’s third floor.
The simple mind-altering fact is that anyone who drinks water from the fountain is able to create a genuine, authentic and unquestionable masterwork. As Duckworth explains to Les the curator of the BE AN ARTIST™ exhibit:
“I don’t think you understand. If people keep coming here and drinking the water…What about craft, sacrifice? Instant Picassos. Monets,… Springing up like weeds….
“These works of art have ripped my heart out. They’ve reduced my life of words to a joke, a child’s book, a waste of time. I’ve been rendered useless. And by what? Instant art….We’re all going to be surrounded by indescribable pieces of beauty. Don’t you see?”
To which, Les responds,
“It’s good business for the museum.”
Well, yeah, except, as everyone eventually figures out, there’s one catch: If you drink and you create, shortly after the masterpiece is done, you die.
Right to choose
And, then it goes from bad to worse. There are people, many people — this may sound somewhat familiar — who decide that they have a right to drink the water because they want to create art and who cares the consequences? Duckworth becomes their spokesman and provocateur, standing in front of the MCA with an army of protestors demanding entry and talking to a dopey television reporter named Belle Day:
“It is my understanding that the creation of a masterpiece will cause the artist to die within a short period of time.”
“People have a right to choose.”
“But you die.”
“People have a right to their own bodies. As a woman, don’t you agree?”
“Well, yeah, I guess.”
It’s all pretty loony, but, as that Duckworth-Belle Day conversation indicates, there are serious and highly consequential questions being addressed in David Scott Hay’s The Fountain. Such as: What is art if anyone can make a great work? Is creating a masterpiece, one and only one, worth dying for? Is art the work that is created or is it the artist’s labor, inspiration and skill that went into creating it?
And The Fountain is not just about Duckworth and his water fountain-inspired wet dreams.
The saxophone player
Even more central to Hay’s novel are two true artists — the middle-aged Bob Bellio, known as “B,” and the dreadlock-wearing Harriet Walker, known as “Jawbone” — who, in their commitment to their craft, counterbalance all of the hype and power-mongering that Duckworth eventually gets himself into.
Not only are B and Jawbone artists, but lovers of a sort — doomed lovers, sympatico, respecting art for itself and respecting each other as committed creators, loving each other but torn apart in the water fountain-fueled chaos.
They are the core of The Fountain, the exemplars of authenticity and sense and sensibility in a Chicago and an art world that goes crazier with every turning page. And they aren’t alone. There is a soft-hearted woman known as Not Trudy who turns out to be named Olive. And a musician mourning his daughter:
“Somewhere up the hill a man breathes into a saxophone. Mourning and celebrating his daughter with grace notes so achingly conjured only a parent who has lost a child could truly hear them.”
The cast of characters includes others who, like Duckworth, have lost their minds, such as Emma, Timmy’s grade school teacher, who drinks the water and loses all inhibitions, turning into a kind of wood nymph, frolicking in a flood of the fountain’s water on the floor of the MCA with a security guard named Hector, ripping off his clothes straddling him “and they are one being, both bodies glistening in a baptism of now.”
“Baptism of now” — yes, Hay has a way with words. In another place, he writes that B is astonished by thousands of fireflies kamikazeing into the MCA windows and sees “these streaking fireflies, doomed as they are, the guts of misguided love splattered across a life in the arts.”
And Hay has a droll sense of humor, peppering his pages with cultural references dropped here and there in passing, such as “American thighs” and “a million little pieces” and “lovely dark and deep” and “the ring of fire” and “little dog, too.”
And he has a meta-fictional bent, providing, for instance, a six-page facsimile of a supposed Wikipedia entry, “The Fountain Period,” giving an overview of events that will unfurl in the second half of the novel, complete with inside jokes such as a quote from his publisher Miette Gillette “(citation needed).” In addition, in the 16 Wikipedia references, Hay mentions of his friend Glenn Jeffers and Hay’s play the (Violent) Sex which was produced and reviewed in the real Chicago in 2004 and Brian Alan Hill who was an actor in that play. And those are just the in-jokes I spotted.
More than a bit over the top
The Fountain is a meaty, sprawling, delightfully kooky, delightfully astute 447-page novel that is certainly a work of art. Anyone in or around the art world, especially in Chicago, will get a charge out of Hay’s story. But, really, anyone interested in a novel that’s fun and more than a bit over the top is likely to resonate with The Fountain.
And a final thought: Duckworth is such a misguided, damaged villain that he can’t be written off as evil, pure and simple. He’s trying to find power, trying to find meaning in the life he finds himself living, and the water fountain at the MCA seems ready made for him to use to his advantage.
And, truth be told, when he complains to B about how he feels stuck on the outside of a club he wants to be in, he is speaking the envy of all of us, I suspect, at some time in our lives, if not often in our lives. He says:
“You don’t know what it’s like to watch gifted people throw away their talent on drugs and whores. It comes so easily to them, they don’t think they have to work. They want someone to hand them the success, the money because they’re ‘talented.’ ”
Duckworth is being unfair, and yet he isn’t. His yearning for talent — the yearning that all of us have — is at the heart of The Fountain, and it’s what makes the novel as good as it certainly is.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally ran at Third Coast Review on 3.18.22.