In August 2002, fresh from the release of his fourth novel, Lucchesi and The Whale, and a Duke Magazine feature chronicling his transition from literary critic to fiction writer, English professor Frank Lentricchia boarded a plane for a family vacation in Maine. He was already getting the itch to write again, but had not found his groove.
On the plane, he tinkered with a few opening sentences, as his daughter, Maeve, then seven, looked on. "What are you doing?" she asked. Working on another novel, he told her. "Well," she said, sensing that her dad needed some help, "why don't you call it 'Lucchesi II?' "
On a manila folder, she sketched her idea of Lucchesi. For the next two years, Lentricchia held on to the folder, using it to store notes and thoughts as he wrote The Book of Ruth, in effect, Lucchesi II.
Ruth is not exactly a conventional sequel. Lentricchia has included two characters from the first book--the vaguely autobiographical protagonist, writer Thomas Lucchesi, and Ruth Cohen, who appeared briefly as a flight attendant in a dream sequence in Lucchesi, but who now, as a photographer and the writer's wife, shares narration duties; otherwise the book takes off in new directions.
Interlacing the narrative with flashbacks, the story follows the couple from Utica, New York (Lentricchia's hometown), to secluded "Ninth Lake" in upstate New York, and eventually to Baghdad. Where Lucchesi was an abstract musing--equal parts novel and lit crit focusing heavily on the writer's own experience of Moby-Dick--Ruth is more plot driven.
Drive him it did. With Baghdad as the story's ultimate destination (Ruth goes there to photograph Saddam Hussein for The New Yorker), Lentricchia tried to become intimate with the city from afar, poring over books, diaries, and news reports. He took voluminous notes, but, two-thirds of the way done with the novel, realized that he could not accurately convey the flavor of the city without firsthand experience. Still, the prospect of going to war-torn Baghdad was not especially appealing. To get the feel of a Middle Eastern city, Lentricchia spent two weeks in Cairo, "alone, wandering the city," becoming conversant with its smells, its sounds, its rhythms.
Lentricchia's travels do not end there. This semester, he is in Florence, teaching a Duke course on classic Italian art-film directors. "I'm going to teach and absorb art. And, maybe if I'm lucky, I'll have the idea for a novel."