by Lou Mancinelli
The debut novel “Extraordinary Renditions” (Coffeehouse Press, 2010, $14.95) by Roxborough’s Andrew Ervin, 42, was greeted with a chorus of acclaim that would undoubtedly warm the heart of even the most successful best-selling authors.
According to a typical accolade in the New York Times, one of many rave reviews, “The variety of viewpoints and the author’s evident intimacy with an ancient foreign capital are promising, and Ervin makes it plain that he is taking on weighty themes: history, empire, race, the power of art.”
A review in the Minneapolis Star Tribune insisted, “Ervin keeps his emotionally and politically fraught setting animated, thanks largely to his skill at inhabiting each of his characters. . . . [Extraordinary Rendition’s] ending makes a poignant case for the power of art in an age of war.”
Publishers Weekly selected it as one of the best books of 2010. The Huffington Post called it one of the year’s most memorable works of fiction. Ervin’s own book reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and elsewhere.
“Extraordinary Renditions” is actually a collection of three novellas. In one, Lajos Harkályi is a Holocaust survivor and world-renowned composer who has returned to Budapest to premiere his final opera, the melody from a lullaby his mother sang to him before she was taken to a concentration camp. In the second, Private First Class Jonathan “Brutus” Gibson is being blackmailed by his commanding officer at the U.S. Army base in Hungary. In the third, aspiring musician Melanie Scholes is preparing for the most important performance of her career as a violinist in Harkályi’s opera.
In “Extraordinary Renditions” Ervin has sought to create a story reflective of real life in which there is no main character but rather a web of players. The seeds of this story were planted when Ervin moved to Budapest in 1994 with his then-girlfriend (now his wife) after graduating from Goucher College in Baltimore with a degree in philosophy and religion the previous year.
Ervin launched his career as a writer not in Philadelphia but in Budapest, where he found work writing for English-language papers. He also worked as a tutor and eventually for an internet company creating video games. After five years in Hungary, Ervin moved back to Philadelphia with his wife in 1999, but a high-paying e-commerce gig “slowly turned into another shithole job.” He hated the way he felt at the end of the day after the drive home from King of Prussia on I-76.“I didn’t like the idea of working for money-grubbing weasels,” said Ervin.
By 2001 he had fought off and turned away from the corporate world. He proceeded to earn a master’s degree in English and creative writing at Illinois State University. By 2008 he had added an MFA in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UI). While he studied, his wife, the flutist Elivi Varga, also studied for her doctorate in music at UI.
After grad school, Ervin taught for two years at Louisiana State University. The whole time he had been publishing book reviews. His first ran in Budapest. When he moved back to Philly, he contacted the City Paper, which published some of his reviews. Since then, Ervin has gone on to receive steady assignments, and his literary reviews appear in major publications. He is also an adjunct professor at Temple University, where he teaches creative writing.
Ervin maintains an interesting position in the literary world. He is both a published critic and an author, and has thus seen the publishing world from both ends. He used to read unsolicited submissions at The Southern Review, LSU’s literary journal.
While technology may seem to be leading creative young people to film or other mediums, for Ervin the novel is still, and will remain, a potent form. “The novel is not going to go away but it is going to be joined,” he said.
As it were, becoming “joined” is also a theme of “Extraordinary Renditions.” Before the book begins, it poses a quote from Hungarian philosopher and literary critic, György Lukács, that asks, “Who was to save us from Western civilization?”
For Ervin the quote serves as both a piece of humor and a poignant message about the modern world. The local author wanted the quote to remind the reader of the effect of the Americanization of eastern Europe. The effects of the transition from communist to capitalist. “The quote speaks to being aware of the influence America is going to have abroad,” Ervin said.
For more information, visit andrewervin.com. “Extraordinary Renditions” can be ordered at coffeehousepress.org/shop/extraordinary-renditions/