Overboard

The Vices
Lawrence Douglas
Other Press, $15.95, 352 pp.

Lawrence Douglas’s new novel The Vices starts off with a crackerjack first paragraph:

On July 18, 200—, at 18:00 GMT, the Queen Mary 2 left Southampton with 2,912 passengers and roughly half as many crew. She arrived at the Brooklyn dockyards on the morning of July 24 with 2,911 passengers. In a brief wire service piece, the New York Times identified the missing passenger as “Oliver Vice, 41, a professor of philosophy at Harkness College in western Massachusetts.” He was also my closest friend, and remained so, even after he ruined my marriage.

 Douglas, a professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College and the author of one previous novel, redeems the promise of this first paragraph: for most of this book, he delivers a genuine old-fashioned highbrow entertainment—a witty, urbane, intercontinental, Wittgenstein-quoting mystery that is at its heart not so much a whodunit as a whowuzthat or maybe (at its most Wittgensteinian) a what-is-knowing-anyway.

This is a book in which the wrinkles on one character’s face are described as “Audenesque,” an aspect of another’s personality is said to be “Kantian,” and a third character is said to look “like Nabokov.” Samuel Beckett is quoted at length and references are made to Spinoza, and along with the discourses on Wittgenstein we are treated to the...

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About the Author

Gabriel Brownstein, associate professor of English at St. John’s University, is the author of two works of fiction. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (W. W. Norton & Co.) won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2002. His novel The Man from Beyond (W. W. Norton & Co.) was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and one of Booklist’s Top 10 Historical Novels in 2005.