Cover image for Chinese takeout : a novel
Chinese takeout : a novel
Nersesian, Arthur.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Perennial, [2003]

Physical Description:
283 pages ; 21 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From the author of the cult classic The Fuck-Up comes a vicious new tale of art, drugs, love, and death on the Lower East Side.

Orloff Trenchant is a painter who sells books on West 4th Street in Manhattan and is obsessed with mastering his craft. Desperate for cash, Or agrees to take a commission no one else will touch: he has three weeks to carve a headstone for a recently deceased restaurateur -- a Chinese takeout box. As Or attempts to make his deadline, he navigates among a toxic mix of fellow artists, struggling gallery owners, bloodsucking art dealers, his politically active friends, and a haunting addict poet whose life is more out of control than Or's own.

Nersesian's prose is sparkling and hypnotic in this brutal and comic story that will make you wonder if life and art are two different things.

Author Notes

Arthur Nersesian is the author of The Fuck-up and Manhattan Loverboy. The former managing editor of the literary magazine The Portable Lower East Side, he taught English for ten years at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College in the South Bronx.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Orloff Trenchant is a 30-something painter whose brush with death is only one of the forces driving him to create his seemingly endless sketches of a swimmer struggling in the East River. While the politically charged dispute over the 2000 election rages around him, he must sculpt an abandoned chunk of alabaster into a unique headstone to free himself from the financial morass he is in. Concurrently, he becomes increasingly entangled with the cynical, witty young heroin addict he has come to depend on for human feelings in a sea of urban alienation and decay. Capturing in words the energy, dynamism, and exhaustion of creating visual art is a definite achievement. Setting the act of creation amidst Lower East Side filth, degradation, and hope, and making that environment a palpable, organic character in a novel confirms Nersesian's literary artistry. His edgy exploration of the love of art and of life, and of the creative act and the sweat and toil inherent to it, is hard to put down. --Whitney Scott Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Nersesian (The Fuck-Up; Manhattan Loverboy) weaves a heartfelt, tragicomic bohemian romance with echoes of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orloff Trenchant is the quintessential starving artist, leading a hand-to-mouth existence as he struggles to make his mark on the cutthroat New York gallery scene. Dumped by his artist girlfriend for a rich collector, living out of his beat-up van or borrowed lofts and selling used books on the sidewalk to make ends meet, "Or" is beginning to question his art-for-art's-sake ethos when he meets his muse in the person of Rita, a beautiful poetess, prostitute and heroin addict even more desperate than he is. Nersesian sends up the pretentiousness and excesses of the art world, but without the jeering tone the subject usually provokes in satirists. He writes evocatively of the processes and products of the artistic life, and he believes the issues raised by it-realism versus abstraction; money and security versus creativity and passion; the struggle to wrest deathless art from the transience of life, even from a Chinese takeout box (Or is commissioned to sculpt a tombstone in that shape for a deceased restaurateur)-are worth pondering. Indeed, the novel itself is a sprawling, obsessively detailed portrait of the Lower East Side demimonde during the 2000 election, as Or's frenetic life bounces him between used book stores, gallery openings, drug dens and literary dives where poets spout Naderite polemics. Infused with the symbolism of Greek legend, the hip squalor of this milieu takes on a mythic charge that energizes Nersesian's lyrical celebration of an evanescent moment in the life of the city. 4-city author tour. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Not since Henry Miller has a writer so successfully captured the trials and tribulations of a struggling artist. Orloff Trenchant had initial success as an artist with paintings based on a subway accident but has languished in the years since, unable to finish his "East River Swimmer" series. He survives by selling used books in lower Manhattan, but when he slashes his girlfriend's paintings and leaves her, he is compelled to live in his van. Dealing with gallery owners, art critics, and fellow painters, Or becomes obsessed with Rita, a junkie poet, giving her what little money he has to buy drugs so that she won't have to turn tricks. Then he is offered a commission to sculpt a Chinese takeout container as a headstone. All this is set against the backdrop of the Gore-Bush recount, with Or finally understanding his artistic vision, the truth about Rita, and his place in the art world. Once again, Nersesian (Manhattan Loverboy) focuses on urban life, and here he has created a masterly image. Highly recommended-Josh Cohen, Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Twenty years after the subway accident, at thirty-three, I had two pieces accepted to a group show on lower Broadway. My financée, June, and I were late to the opening at Entrance Art Gallery. June dashed off to meet one friend just as the curator, Laura Vierst, grabbed me. She said someone had already shown interest in one of my pieces. "Orloff," she whispered, "I want you to meet Barclay Hammel." Laura pushed me toward the back of a small, younger man chatting with the gray-fox mogul Victor Oakridge. The short youth looked like a big yellow dahlia and smelled of roses. "So few artists realize that patrons are their hidden partners," I overheard Victor pontificate to his partner in wealth. "People remember Michelangelo, but if Pope Julius II didn't toss him the Sistine Chapel commission or the Last Judgment , if the Medicis didn't throw him into their funeral tomb, he'd just be an obscure stonecutter." "Listen, Or," said Laura, while we were waiting. "I got him to take your piece for half the price, and I think you should do it." In other words, instead of eight hundred, I'd get four, minus Laura's commission - still twice as much as I would get on the street. "Barclay's plugged into this whole dot-com survivor support group and I really think that if he takes this, we can move your other works in that crowd." When Victor finally stepped away from the floral lad, Laura introduced us. Barclay talked about how much he liked one of my paintings entitled East River Swimmer . Done in acrylic paint, it was one of a series of four plywood square-foot panels. Each one was a different view of the swimmer. Although everyone complimented them, I had been unable to draw out all I wanted from them, and feared I had reached my artistic limits. I wanted to work on the series longer and develop them into a solo show, but as usual, I desperately needed cash. I was hoping to rent a gloriously huge loft with June, so against my better judgment, I agreed to let Laura put the red dot next to it on the price list. Delighted, Barclay shook my hand and went on about how great the work was: "I usually buy art as an investment, but your piece immediately grabbed me. You really feel the guy struggling. I intend to hang it in my bedroom so I'll never forget that life is a challenge." I had to sell my labors at half price to remind a millionaire that life was hard. When his cell phone chimed, he excused himself and took the call. I was expected to wait politely. Art collectors were a despicable bunch who held artists by a short green leash made of nouveau cash. A year before, I had painted a series of collectors like pompous Victor Oakridge. I characterized them as purple and bloated Turks destroying Armenian artifacts, prissy and gray Nazis looting the Louvre, and sleek, pedigree dogs fighting over a bloody piece of meat. Ironically the cycle sold well. Only the ongoing fear of starving to death drove me to put my work on gallery walls. In a flash, the boy fascist was off the phone. Before he could cut the check and scram, I brought him to my beautiful girl, Junia, who I introduced as a brilliant young artist. Described by one critic as "a photographic ultra-realist," June was apt both in landscape and people. She could immediately scale down a scene - no matter how grand - to the perfect ratio of a page, with nearly no revision. Her weaknesses were conception and composition. Her talent seemed to overwhelm her. She'd work quicker than she could actually think. To look at her work, you'd see it lacked thematic cohesion. Still, I was in awe. I genuinely hoped Barclay would buy something from her, but truthfully my vanity was also at work; I wanted to show him the living beauty I possessed that money couldn't buy. After his eyes popped out and his jawbone dropped off, he asked if she had any pieces in the show. Of course she did. Colorful abstractions that looked like they had been composed by Rothko in a Spin-o-Rama, not her usual stuff. As he flattered her framed tie-dyed T-shirts, I saw another dark green jug of red wine having its black top unscrewed. Klein Ritter got to it first. He was a shrunken, deviously mild-mannered man and the most venomous art critic on the scene. For the longest time he'd flatter me, come to all my shows, and perpetually promise to write an introductory essay in a major art journal. Eventually, though, I learned that he swore this to every good-looking straight male artist who crossed his crooked path. When I started pouring the vino, he stood behind me and said, "So, Or, how does it feel knowing you have the best piece in the gallery." He gulped down the drink. "I only believe reviews that I read in magazines." I refilled his cup. "Come on," he replied. "Who do I look like, Robert Hughes? Good reviews are no fun. Besides, success is the worst thing for young talent." Like a bad odor, he seemed to dissipate away. "Body and Soul," whatever that meant, was the title and theme of the show. Inspecting the various works, I realized that Klein's compliment had unfortunate merit. Among the many tiredly shocking pieces, a conceptual artist had submitted a series of Polaroids of his solid waste, which he referred to as "Brown Carps." Next to them, splattered configurations of his seed spilled on a black page were labeled, "O man, Onan!" When I looked over to point out the vulgarographs to June, I saw that she was still with Barclay. She giggled as he yapped and I couldn't be happier. He was obviously smitten by her ... (Continues...) Excerpted from Chinese Takeout by Arthur Nersesian Copyright © 2003 by Arthur Nersesian Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.