Announcing Portraits and Ashes

The cover. Image: Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915 (via Wikipedia)

As you might have guessed from yesterday’s defense of self-published literary fiction, I have independently published a novel, Portraits and Ashes. For a brief description, here is the back cover copy:

Julia is an aspiring painter without money or direction, haunted by a strange family history. Mark is a successful architect who suddenly finds himself unemployed with a baby on the way. Alice is a well-known artist and museum curator disgraced when her last exhibit proved fatal. Running from their failures, this trio is drawn toward a strange new cult that seeks to obliterate the individual—and which may be the creation of a mysterious and dangerous avant-garde artist.

John Pistelli unforgettably portrays three people desperate to lead meaningful lives as they confront the bizarre new institutions of a fraying America. A suspenseful and poetic novel in the visionary tradition of Don DeLillo, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, and José Saramago, PORTRAITS AND ASHES is a scorching picture of our troubled age.

Portraits and Ashes is available for sale in print and ebook formats through Amazon, and it is listed on Goodreads as well. I am happy to offer free pdfs of the ebook in exchange for honest reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or your personal blog or website. If you’re interested, please contact me at johnppistelli at

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For an expanded description of the novel, please read on:

Reading [Portraits and Ashes] is like following a well-marked and yet unfamiliar winding path—the footing is sure, but it’s impossible to guess what’s around each corner…everything I hunger for in a novel.
—Craig Conley, author of One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, Franzlations: The Imaginary Kafka Parables, and more

Portraits and Ashes is about artists and cities, men and women, cultists and individualists, libraries and museums, respectability and poverty. It is about the widespread desire to burn down the contemporary world and return to something simpler. It is about the struggle to live in the contemporary world and create meaning and beauty within its confines.

An early version of the cover.

Set during the economic collapse of an unnamed Rust Belt city, Portraits and Ashes tells the intertwined stories of three main characters. Julia Bonham is a young aspiring artist with no money and no direction, haunted by a strange family history. Her high-school boyfriend, Mark Weis, is a seemingly successful architect and happily-married man who finds himself unemployed with a baby on the way. Alice Nicchio-Strand, the former mistress of Julia’s estranged father, is a famous artist and museum curator who was disgraced when the last art exhibit she oversaw proved fatal to twenty-one people.

As each of their apparently failed lives moves toward its crisis, the trio falls into the orbit of a strange new apocalyptic cult called the Its, a sect of wandering ascetics who seek to obliterate the individual and reject the world—and which may be tied to Frank Jobe, the mysterious and dangerous avant-garde artist responsible for the murderous art installation that led to Alice’s own downfall. As these three fascinatingly flawed protagonists—Julia the arrested adolescent, Mark the good citizen, and Alice the willful quester—desperately try to lead meaningful lives, they confront the bizarre new institutions of a fraying America: an underground secret hospital for the poor, a deconsecrated church turned artists’ colony and pornographer’s film set, a library whose gallery is a haunt of suicides, and a death-cult that may or may not be a radical art experiment.

A novel that combines the surrealism of avant-garde art with the social and psychological portraiture of realist fiction, that challenges the stability of character with the chaos of a disintegrating social order, that shows how hope and endurance may (or may not) pass through the fire of despair and how art may yet be a redemptive force in our world, Portraits and Ashes is mostly about Julia, Mark, and Alice, whose journeys to the underworld may, if all goes well, provide some comfort or at least some company on your own, as they have mine.

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For the novel’s opening pages, please read on:


In the choir loft of the deconsecrated church, the artist posed her naked body this way and that. He moved her limbs with his bare hands, crack-skinned and turps-smelling, tufted with wiry black hair. Caked beneath each fingernail, he had lines of that glossy blackish earth-brown color made when all the oil paints mix together. His touch felt so impersonal to her, like wood and moss and soil, that even when he took up her left leg to drape it over the blanket-heaped pew she sat on, the heel of one hand pressed bracingly on her inner thigh and the palm of the other cradling the sole of her foot, no question of sex or trespass arose. She was not what he wanted.

“Right foot touching the ground, left foot in the air,” he said in his thickly-accented English. “It is a symbol.”

She didn’t ask of what: Julia didn’t believe in symbols. She didn’t believe in what she couldn’t taste, touch, see. She’d always been that way: she’d stood aloof from her friends, for instance, during that vogue for dream-books in middle school, when all the girls sought the faces of their future husbands or intimations of their picturesque deaths each night. Belief, she thought, was expressed only in action. Those Soviet bulldozers clumsily chomping at gilded onion domes: pure sorcery. The domes, altars, and crosses were not symbols of something that, if you wrecked them, would continue to persist in heaven or the mind. They held all their reality in themselves. Get rid of His altars and you would also be rid of the reality of God.

“Don’t look to me,” the artist said. “Look to the distance.”

She lifted her gaze out over the empty church and lowered it down the nave until it came to rest on the space where the altar had been. She stole glances at the artist occasionally, when he would forget about her and fix his eyes on the picture taking shape under his hand. His eyes were a bit too wide, too fierce, just the way an artist’s should be, she thought: his flashing eyes, his floating hair. The old man’s mouth, though tensed, the teeth clenched, nevertheless maintained a bare little smile, as of satisfaction. This felt wrong to her. Her own art never satisfied her; no, it was a constant frustration, the inability of the image on the paper to align with the image in her head. Who was he to feel satisfied? She felt a small desire to ruin his satisfaction somehow, to kick out her heel and send the canvas over the rail of the choir loft, to see what would happen if she destroyed something.

When she was in first grade, she slowly tore a religion textbook to shreds. In her little Catholic school, a red-brick building with massive gray crucifixes hanging in stony agony at the end of each long hallway, every student was assigned a homeroom desk in which to keep their schoolbooks during the day while they circulated among other teachers’ rooms for their classes. During her math class, which she found dull because she did not understand it, she would keep herself awake by reaching inside the desk and slowly making small tears in the top textbook on her classmate’s pile. She ripped it a little bit every day, careful not to make noise and attract Sister Grace’s attention. By February, the book was in ribbons. Sister Grace sternly summoned her one Friday afternoon from her homeroom; she remembered looking up the hairy nostrils, at the dark-spotted face of the old nun, the jowls and forehead like dull clay extruded from the tight navy-blue habit.

“Did you tear this book, Julia?” Sister Grace asked, holding up in evidence, in her liver-spotted and meaty hand, the ragged strips that hung between the covers of the compulsory slipcase her classmate had made out of a paper grocery bag. Sister Grace pronounced her name with two syllables in a kind of slur: not jul-ee-yah but jul-ya.

All she remembered saying was no. She said it brazenly, not turning down her chin or dropping her eyes from the nun. She felt she had a fire in her mouth and beneath her cheeks.

“Six students sit in that desk during the day; I can’t prove which one of you did it. I’ll tell you what I told the rest of them,” said Sister Grace. “There won’t be a punishment. Not in this world, Julia. But remember this, little girl.” She bent her hunched back slightly, a sharp scent of mothballs coming out of the pleats of her tan skirt. “Remember this: hell isn’t a place you go when you die. Hell is what you do. If you destroy things, if you tell lies, you are already in hell. You are in the hell of your own making, where everything appears ugly and false, which is why you destroy and why you lie. So say what you want, little girl, but the truth is the truth. If your hands have been destructive and your tongue has been false, you are in hell, you are consumed from within, burning right before me, and it doesn’t matter what you say.”

The old nun never did know how to get along with children. She was retired the next year, and dead the year after that. Julia intermittently remembered her words. Now she had hardly any beliefs at all, but she was convinced that what she said did not in fact matter.

A customer in the café once hit on her by asking, while she prepared his espresso, if she believed in God. “Do I look like I believe in God?” she said over the sound of the machine. He frowned and narrowed his eyes, and then, after she handed him his drink and rang him up, he turned away and didn’t speak to her again, nor did he leave a tip.

Eventually, the artist allowed her to relax. He had finished capturing her pose and now went to work on tones and textures; he still wanted to study her bare flesh but not in any particular position. It was five-thirty in the morning, but the painter paid her extra for his preference for working before dawn. She lay on her back, knees drawn up, imagining his tight little elderly smile.

“Can I ask you something that might annoy you?” she said.

The artist now smiled broadly with his old-world courtliness and said, “Yes, of course, but if you are too annoying I will not answer.”

“Isn’t painting finished?” she said. “Museums, galleries, and art schools are all about installations, performance, multimedia, various kinds of street art, new forms of interactive art. There have even been defenses on these grounds of The Last Café.”

He grunted in disgust at her allusion.

“Then there’s film, video, photography, the Internet. Whatever technological function the canvas served as a way of producing images has been entirely superseded. But even leaving that aside, didn’t art considered in and of itself run its course? Didn’t artists themselves bring it to an end with abstraction and pastiche and collage and blank canvases and soup cans and all of that? They took it to its logical conclusion. There’s not another development anyone can imagine. What reason is there to go on making pictures of people and things after that?”

He nodded as she spoke, his chin bouncing off the top of every word, no doubt because he had already heard every word before, probably in more than one language. Then he painted in silence for long enough to discomfort her. The hairs of the brush scratched against the canvas like a whisper that echoed under the high ceiling of the church.

“The answer is very simple,” he finally said. “I do it only so that it will not be finished. What you say seems as if it is true, but if I am doing it, how can it be finished? Logical conclusion, you say, but we do not live in logic. There is a way of being, of meeting, in this act that does not exist in these others that you mention. On this canvas comes together myself, yourself, this church. All are touching, which cannot happen in the machine, not even in photographs, where the apparatus comes between the mind and the mark and does its work by itself, no human touch. The apparatus itself is some other man’s creation. My rival, so to say. But here is no rival, only my hand, my tool, my mind, your body, your mind, this room, this hour. All touching. This way of things coming together I do not want to see finished, so I do it if nobody else will.”

“And if nobody sees it?”

“You see it, I see it. Are we nothing? You and I are not nothing.”

He turned the easel to face her. There she was, palely luminescent in the candlelit greenish gloom, refracted through the viscous medium formed by his mind and his hand, which had rendered invisible the totenkopf tattooed on her left bicep, presumably excluded as a rival’s vision. He had muted the neon-flame quality of her red-dyed hair to make it more nearly resemble a real fire, and he’d moreover harmonized her hair color with that of her nipples and her pubes, which were, in point of mere contemptible fact, brownish blonde. The portrait hinted that some kind of flame burned inside her, lit her from within, could barely be contained by her almost diaphanous skin. She didn’t feel that way at almost six in the morning after a night of work at the café.

After he packed up his painting supplies and she got dressed, he paid her what he owed her. The two hundred-dollar bills he gave her were crumpled and smooth, so warm and soft he must have had them for years. They smelled of oil and turpentine and were worn almost to bare fabric: they hardly looked like money at all. She followed him down the dark spiral staircase leading from the choir loft into the narthex, his materials rattling and clattering against the narrow banisters. They shook hands before he went off through the huge doors into the waking city. She hesitated for a moment and then walked the other way, into the nave.

Bits and pieces of Catholic school drifted in the after-work early-morning fog of her head. Long liturgies she couldn’t wait to end. The forced silence. The smell of wet stone and wood varnish. The booming of the organ through her chest. Her rigid posture on the kneelers and the nuns who would swat your ass if you bent at the waist while you knelt. She would have been horrified to learn that she might later feel nostalgia for such oppressions. What could a child know about nostalgia? Anything that vanished, no matter what it was, seemed precious just because it was gone. She stood at the end of a pew. How furious the nuns had been when they found the dream-books. “Pure sorcery,” Sister Anne had said. Julia genuflected and knelt, not because she believed, she told herself, but only so that this way of things coming together would not be finished. Did she look like she believed?

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