The Red Shoes
The best and easiest way to describe John Stewart Wynne's unusual, albeit intriguing, novel, "The Red Shoes," is to say what it isn't. "The Red Shoes" isn't a romance, it isn't a coming-of-age story, it isn't a fictionalized memoir, and despite its close resemblance to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, it is not a traditional fable.
"The Red Shoes" centers on thirty-five-year-old narrator John Laith, a Manhattanite agonizing over the death of his alcoholic partner, Frank. As the beneficiary of Frank's life insurance policy, John has arguably too much free time on his hands, most of which he initially spends peering out the window of his Chelsea apartment overlooking an Episcopal Seminary.
The seemingly tranquil, meditative scenario goes awry, however, when he discovers a stranger masturbating within the walls of the Seminary's chapel. John later makes the acquaintance of a wealthy realtor, Crewe James, and recognizes him as the man pleasuring himself. Despite being married and the questionable circumstances of their introduction, John embarks upon a torrid affair with Crewe, following a series of casual encounters with a dominant, role-playing cop, Silvio.
The first half of the novel provides extensive detail of the submissive, destructive rollercoaster ride of John and Crewe's arrangement (to call it a relationship would be misleading), and the author shares surprisingly little detail of Frank, or any pertinent information or history about John's personal life, other than his fellow friends in bereavement, token gal pal, Allison, and father figure, Reg. Heavy on description and light on dialogue, the pages are mostly packed with frivolous yet fun accounts of his cocaine-fueled sexual escapades -- and occasional delusions of angels or ghosts.
John later shares a similarly submissive dalliance with Baily, a twenty-four-year-old nightclub bouncer with an affinity for crack. After that fizzles, John finds value in keeping Baily's employer, Maxo, within his circle, not only because high-quality illegal substances are readily available (for a price), but also the fondness he has for his alluring, exotic wife, Patrizia.
So what about the red shoes? It just so happens that whenever John is wearing them, bad things happen. The back story of how the shoes came into his possession and his subsequent interaction with the shoes' original owner are arguably the most fascinating, however convoluted, of John's adventures.
Wynne's prose is certainly readable and even lyrical, at times, and much of the imagery is almost ethereal. Unfortunately, there isn't a truly likable character among the story's major players. John's behavior is admittedly familiar and deserving of our empathy, but his downward spiral is more often trivial than tragic.
"The Red Shoes"
John Stewart Wynne