Robert Antoni tries a new approach
Robert Antoni tries a new approach
Jacqueline Carini

Caribbean Homesick Blues

There was a time when it was easy to tell the three Antoni children apart. As the offspring of Dr. Robert Antoni, a descendent of nineteenth-century British utopian communards who immigrated to Trinidad, the Antoni children did their best to carry on that offbeat lineage, becoming the real-world equivalent of the Royal Tenenbaums -- the charmingly eccentric family that gave Wes Anderson's 2001 film its title.

Daughter Janine, age 40, grew into an internationally feted conceptual artist, with her sculptures and performance pieces earning space at the Whitney Museum, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" Fellowship, and so many citations in The New York Times that the paper's critics now offhandedly refer to promising new talent of a particular neofeminist stripe as being "Antoni-like."

Older brother Robert, age 46, held down the role of learned professor and novelist, mentoring a steady stream of young talent at the University of Miami while his own intricate prose and cultural studies had the late George Plimpton lauding him as "the James Joyce of the Caribbean" and spotlighting his work in Paris Review.

It was up to 45-year-old younger brother Brian to indulge in more earthly pursuits as a frequent South Beach nightcrawler and clubland habitué. Indeed, parts of Brian's own 1994 novel, Paradise Overdose -- a frothy tale of sex and drugging across the Bahamas -- often seemed closer to a hazy memoir than fiction. And if a sample chapter of Venus de Milo Arms -- his long-awaited chronicle of the Beach's glory days -- is any indication, Brian's preoccupations have hardly shifted.

A simple enough dichotomy then: Robert is the "serious" writer in the Antoni clan; brother Brian tackles the juicy bits. At least that's the way it used to be.

Nowadays it's Robert's writing that is raising prurient eyebrows: His new novel Carnival practically drips with erotic tension -- of all persuasions -- and the book's wastrel narrator is a far cry from the mythological archetypes and historic figures that filled his earlier work such as Divina Trace and Blessed Is the Fruit.

In fact William, the Manhattan writer at the end of his emotional tether who anchors Carnival, is an Anglo who's run away from both his Trinidadian roots and his wealthy family -- a man who bears no small likeness to Robert Antoni himself. Such was the verdict at Robert's Books & Books reading last month, where the Coral Gables store was filled with curious murmurings on his new turn. Having angrily quit his University of Miami position despite receiving tenure there in 2001 ("I love teaching but I hate the politics of academia"), Robert had moved his family to Barcelona. As of last fall, however, he was living in New York City, teaching as an adjunct at Columbia University, sans wife and kids.

"It's pretty obvious he's single again," quipped family friend and local hotelier Mera Rubell after listening to Robert read a particularly charged section of Carnival to the assembled crowd. "His interests are changing," she added with a knowing smile.

"He's on my terrain now," joked brother Brian. "Pretty soon I'll have to start writing about mythological frogs just to balance it out."

To Robert, though, such talk is frustrating. "I think people miss out on the playfulness, the humor, that's always been in all of my books," he tells Kulchur with a sigh, speaking in a soft voice that rides a faint Trinidadian lilt. "When I wrote that monkey chapter in Divina Trace," he continues, referring to passages that saw him inventing an entirely new language to capture a monkey's point of view, "I thought, People are going to laugh their heads off at this!" Instead he was greeted with solemn nods of approval from Joycean scholars, as well as the 1992 Commonwealth Prize for best first fiction.

"Everyone takes it so seriously, it's ludicrous!" he snaps. His voice rising to an uncharacteristically sharp timbre, he adds pointedly: "I've been labeled a literary writer. What the fuck does that mean?"

Robert Antoni isn't the only one asking that question. His publisher Grove/Atlantic decided to dramatically reposition him this time out, issuing Carnival as a paperback original on its Black Cat imprint, a new line reserved for bloody noirs, louche coming-of-age stories, and Trainspotting-inspired tyros. Academic is about the last word one would associate with any of Black Cat's offerings, though postmodernists are bound to have a field day with Carnival's content.

Constructed as a present-day reworking of the ultimate in Dead White Male-ology, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Carnival gives us Trinidadian stand-ins for that 1926 classic's "Lost Generation." Jake Barnes's sexually emasculating World War I wound is traded for William's more psychological impotence, Lady Brett Ashley's British blood turns Creole, Robert Cohn's Jewish outsider becomes black, and the whole confused love triangle is whisked off to Port-of-Spain's bacchanalian Carnival festival -- a neat swap for The Sun Also Rises' running of the bulls at Pamplona.

Antoni prefers to call his novel a "cross-dressing" rather than a rework of Hemingway, but even more jarring than his fluid treatment of sexual and racial identity is Carnival's lean style -- no Joycean overtones here.

"Using Hemingway as a point of departure locked me into straightforward, declarative sentences," Antoni explains. "It's what it had to be." And his newfound reckoning for matters of the flesh? "It's what the material called for," he replies coolly.

Still, it's hard not to dwell on Carnival's -- and Antoni's own -- grappling with affairs of the heart. After all, Carnival is easily his most engrossing, direct work to date. The folkloric devices that often defined his earlier books have been stripped away, leaving a rawer -- and ultimately more evocative -- look at unrequited love. And it's equally hard not to see the change in his personal life as having been the catalyst for such a dramatic shift.

This is a delicate subject to broach -- So, can you tell me how your marriage fell apart? -- yet Antoni is surprisingly relaxed in discussing it.

"It was my wife's choice," he says of their split. "Writing this book really saved me in a lot of ways. I had to find a release for all of that --," he searches for the right word, "-- that stuff. I'm dealing with a narrator who has problems that are very different from my own, but writing Carnival became absolutely liberating. I would run to my desk in the morning!"

So can we expect your next novel to be full of true-life tales?

He laughs and rolls his eyes: "I couldn't write about a guy getting a divorce. That would be the worst book in the world."


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