In Richard Powers' latest novel, Orfeo, the last great problem for Peter Els begins when his old, beloved dog kicks the bucket. The poor dog’s death is messy—killed by his ex-wife, in his amateur biology lab. It’s present-day America, and a layperson messing with Petri dishes of weird bacteria is a no-no. Before Els knows it, men in hazmat suits come and confiscate some of his stuff. He goes out for his morning run, and when he comes back folks from what looks like Homeland Security have come to confiscate the rest of it. In response, Els does what he’s been doing most of his life—he runs.
Orfeo takes its title from the Latinized version of Orpheus, a character from ancient Greek mythology who was said to be the greatest musician who ever lived. When his wife died, he went down to Hades to rescue her, but lost her at the last minute when he turned to look at her. In comparison, Peter Els is a man driven and intoxicated by music since childhood. Even his biolab is an attempt to make a primitive, pure music. But he’s hardly the best musician who ever lived; he has exactly one notable creation to his name and disavows it even before it has a chance to premiere. But on his way to his destiny he reconnects with those he’d neglected in his mad pursuit of musical perfection. This includes the woman, another musician, who left him for the greener pastures of Europe when they were young; the big-hearted, quilt-making woman he divorced decades earlier; the snarky, infuriating, charming dancer who was his collaborator on that unfortunate opera and the middle-aged daughter whom he adores but has rarely spent time with.
In Els, Powers gives us a man like so many others: talented but not talented enough, loving but insufficiently so, decent even as his decency goes unrecognized. With prose almost as lyrical as the music that’s always in Els’ head, Powers shows us a man trying to make his peace with people he’d wronged and who had wronged him and with dreams that never quite came true. Orfeo is a haunting book.