The Cloud Sketcher
by Richard Rayner
Published by HarperCollins
430 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Head in the Clouds
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
The publisher's blurbs that come along with review copies sometimes make more interesting reading than the books themselves. A case in point is Richard Rayner's latest novel, The Cloud Sketcher, soon to be a major motion picture directed by Alan Parker (Angela's Ashes, Midnight Express).
"According to industry rumors," the blurb proclaims, " Brad Pitt is rumored to be considering the role of lead character Esko Vaananen, a marred, famed Finnish architect who seeks his fortune and notoriety by building skyscrapers in Manhattan."
That's marred, not married (although he is that too and unfaithful to his wife to boot). Several potential problems arise, such as how Brad Pitt will be able to play a brooding introvert suffering the effects of a bleak, traumatic boyhood in Finland (but maybe they'll cut that part out). And how will he feel about playing ugly? Esko Vaananen's face is badly scarred by the boyhood fire that killed his mother and to top it off he wears an eye patch. Will the disfigurement be reduced to a small, neat dueling scar on Brad's left cheek?
It's not that The Cloud Sketcher is a bad book. The opening chapters set in early 20th-century Finland are dark and convoluted, promising a gripping psychological drama with real depth of characterization and wrenching plot twists.
Finland in 1901 is "a world of poverty, famine, frequent suicide, a world where most recalled how it was to have to eat bread made from pine bark. ... Bad luck, in Finland as elsewhere, was always a secret cause for celebration so long as it wasn't happening to you."
Broody Esko Vaananen fits well into this bleak psychic landscape. He is "a man successfully fighting a sense of himself as doomed: a romantic, stupid, and possibly self-fulfilling notion, but one that was driven inside him like a nail that had wormed itself deep into the heart of a tree."
Rayner painstakingly sketches in the forces that drove this nail so deeply into his heart: the cruelty of his alcoholic, socialist father (soon to become the notorious Red Timo during the Bolshevik revolution); the death of his fragile, mentally ill mother in a deliberately set house fire. And then there is Katerina, the beautiful young daughter of the Czar-appointed local governor Stepan Malysheva. Young Esko is transfixed when he sees her at the fall fair riding in an expensive automobile ("A carriage that runs without horses? They're trying to fool us again," one of the locals exclaims). What happens next should have served as a warning. Esko distinctly hears Katerina say to the driver, "Run the boy down."
Though he escapes with his life, his reaction isn't terror but a lifetime of relentless, obsessive love. This is where The Cloud Sketcher begins to go wrong. Even as a little girl, Katerina is too much the femme fatale to be believable and certainly not a worthy object of this kind of devotion.
But dreams of Katerina sustain Esko even through the turbulence of the Finnish Civil War, in which he fights side-by-side with Katerina's husband Klaus against the forces of Bolshevism. This is the point at which Raymer's writing, already eccentric, takes a turn for the strange: "Finland was now a cake, set in front of the Kaiser for his mid-morning snack. Finland was pastry, about to be devoured by the greedy giants of empire. Finland was a pike, gutted even before it had the chance to realize it was a pike."
Upon hearing a rumor that Katerina has been killed, Esko contents himself with the love of the steady, faithful Anna, an architect who shares his growing professional ambition to break the strictures of traditional design. Together they build a series of heartbreakingly beautiful churches across the Finnish countryside. But of course it is not enough.
For more years than he can count Esko has had an itch that can never be scratched in Pyhajarvi or Helsinki. He has a lust to build a pilvenpiirtaja: a "cloud sketcher," one of those newfangled tall office buildings, the kind that are springing up in faraway Manhattan.
When he happens to see some New York magazine photos with Katerina's name on them, he's off, with no more thought of his wife than if she were a dog he is casually abandoning. In Manhattan during the jazzy 1920s, the novel takes a turn for the cartoonish and never quite recovers.
Esko initially finds work erecting his beloved skyscrapers on a riveting gang, and here he meets Paul Mantilini, a young tough soon to evolve into a gangster straight out of a Dick Tracy comic. At this point Rayner seems to forget his early eloquence and sometimes gets off some truly bad sentences ("A purple silence petrified the branches of the trees in Central Park"). When he sees Katerina in a spangly flapper hat, it gets even worse: "He felt her presence like flame, as if each one of those slender shining silver pieces was an arrow of desire shot through his veins."
After winning second prize in an architectural competition (and enduring the humiliation of seeing his work ripped off by an unscrupulous partner), Esko goes into partnership with the formerly great W.P. Kirby, a man who wears a spotted bow-tie that resembles "a pimpled propeller likely to be set spinning at any moment by the unrestrainable motor of his genius". Paul Mantilini soon embroils them in increasingly shady dealings and then Esko must deal with yet another rival, the wealthy Paul MacCormick (who is, in addition, Katerina's latest husband). Do I need to tell you that all this eventually leads to ... murder?
The book even has a female figure who is a sort of combination Dorothy Parker and Betty Boop, a wisecracking journalist named Marion Bennett. These details indicate that the book will probably translate quite easily to the screen (and I'm not sure that's a compliment), so long as they can deal with those troublesome early passages, back when the main character still had a conscience.
Esko, Esko, you should have stayed in Finland. | October 2001
Margaret Gunning has reviewed many books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.