Burned-out, soon-to-be-divorced, self-doubting, alcoholic, nearly impoverished, overweight middle-aged male poet seeks tattooed, wise-beyond-her-years, extensively pierced, rail-thin, self-destructive, fiercely intelligent female student for repartee about Rilke, miscellaneous travel and . . . ? We can already hear the boots clomping toward the door. Stop. Winslow in Love is brilliant, and more than you will have bargained for.

When it comes to books about middle-aged dysfunctional poets, Anthony Burgess set the bar with his excellent Enderby tetralogy. Happily, Kevin Canty, the award-winning author of Nine Below Zero and Into The Great Wide Open, has delivered a formidable peer for the estimable Mr. Enderby. Richard Winslow is at that age when his first blush of success has receded to a dot in the rearview mirror, with no clear road map to his next triumph, if indeed it is to occur. He accepts a temp job at a Montana college as a stand-in for an even less dependable poet/lecturer, mostly for the cash, but also as a change of venue.

What he doesn't expect is that, in among the student sheep, a wolf awaits. Her name is Erika Jones, and she tramples across Winslow's private Maginot Line. "The one thing I finally figured out," says Erika, "is that you'll never ever understand what goes on between two people when they're in a relationship. Easier to see what's happening on the dark side of the moon." Point taken. Canty brings us close, though, with his poet's ear for place and space. As Jones and Winslow careen toward a completely unexpected denouement, Canty offers us insight into a man grappling with two important questions. One of them is immediate and specific: can the teacher or the poet retrieve his acolyte from the precipice? The other is enduring and general: is there any meaning to what we do? Winslow's journey to the intersection of those questions is often troubling, always compelling. Thane Tierney is a record executive in Los Angeles.

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