Deford '61 explores both in his seventh novel
By Kate Swearengen '04
his years at Princeton, Frank Deford '61 wrote for the Daily Princetonian,
and eventually became its chairman. He also played basketball for
two years, but was less successful at that, and recalls that his
coach often said, half admiringly and half despairingly, "Deford,
you write basketball better than you play it."
Deford smiles ruefully when he admits this, but
there is a measure of pride in his voice. He has, after all, just
published his seventh novel, The Other Adonis (Sourcebooks, 2001),
and is at work on his eighth. And, while there may be a certain
satisfaction in nailing a jump shot, writing is, well, an awful
lot of fun. This is particularly the case with fiction, a genre
that gives Deford more leeway than the sports stories for which
he is famous. "When you write nonfiction, when you write about
real people," Deford says, "you're depending on others
to make it work. Fiction is all you."
And, by that measure, The Other Adonis is unquestionably
all Frank Deford. Part mystery, part romance, and part historical
fiction, the novel defies easy categorization. Throw in the fact
that the concept of reincarnation is central to the book, and the
plot becomes even more difficult to explain. Put simply: Two of
the characters, Constance Rawlings and Floyd "Bucky" Buckingham,
have a visceral reaction to Peter Paul Rubens's famous painting
Venus and Adonis. They enlist the aid of Nina Winston, a psychiatrist
who hypnotizes them in order to discover if there is a historical
basis for their strong attachment to the painting and to each other.
Nina, for her part, is involved in a romance with Hugh Venable,
a dashing minister.
heart of the novel lies with the issue of reincarnation, which presents
an intellectual and spiritual challenge to its characters. Eventually,
reincarnation presents a more sinister challenge as well, and the
book enters the murder mystery realm. If this, and the fact the
action is split between modern-day New York City and 17th-century
Antwerp, makes you think that this isn't the kind of book you can
enjoy while lying on the beach, think otherwise. As complex as the
story line may seem in summation, The Other Adonis is easy to follow.
And, with its clever dialogue and dramatic conclusion, the novel
is well-suited to film adaptation, a fact that Deford himself recognizes.
Consider, for example, this excerpt: "Closer, closer. So transfixed
was Nina that she attracted the wary eye of the vigilant blue-grey
garbed sentinel of gallery twenty-seven. He edged closer, ready
to pounce if this odd woman might try to perform some random act
of desecration. But then, to take it all in, Nina backed up, sitting
on the bench in the middle of the room, and the guard relaxed. By
now, Rubens's glorious figures all but moved before her eyes."
To capture the setting for this scene and others,
Deford spent a great deal of time in gallery 27 of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art. His frequent visits to the gallery drew the curiosity
of the guards, some of whom recognized him and wondered why a sportswriter
would be spending so much time looking at paintings. The inspiration
for The Other Adonis didn't come from a painting in the Metropolitan,
but instead came from a painting by Renoir Deford came across when
he visited Moscow. The painting was of a fetching young woman, and
Deford wondered who she was and what her life had been like. He
decided to construct the plot of his next story around a painting,
but he needed one closer to home. The Metropolitan, 20 blocks from
Deford's New York apartment, fit the bill. Venus and Adonis, which
Deford describes as a "huge, vigorous painting, as big as a
wall," provided ample material for a book.
Reincarnation entered the equation when Deford
needed a way to connect the action in 17th-century Antwerp to the
action in modern-day New York. Deford has been intrigued by reincarnation
during his teenage years, when he read The Search for Bridey Murphy,
an account of a Colorado woman who, when hypnotized, spoke in a
19th-century Irish brogue and called herself Bridey Murphy. Deford's
fascination with the subject continued, and when it came time to
research The Other Adonis, he discussed the matter of reincarnation
with his own minister. "I wouldn't say I'm a believer,"
Deford says. "But I'm a very serious wonderer."
Indeed, fate works in mysterious ways. When Deford
attended Princeton in the late 1950s, the university was in the
practice of inviting famous authors to campus. Kingsley Amis was
one of these visiting professors, and Deford took Amis's creative
writing class. Deford enjoyed the class immensely, he says, and
not just because the grading system was lenient. Amis, says Deford,
showed little interest in his students or their work, although one
of Deford's pieces caught his eye. It was a play called Mr. First,
and it was about a fellow who had to be first in everything. Mr.
First was, in Deford's words, "a very American play,"
and not at all the kind of thing that should have appealed to someone
like Amis. But Amis loved the play, and he sent it to his agent.
While Mr. First was never published, there is an interesting footnote
to the story: Sterling Lord, the husband of the agent to whom Amis
sent the play, is Deford's agent to this day.