Early in Colum McCann's novel "Dancer" you realize that this fictionalized account of the life of ballet genius Rudolf Nureyev isn't really about Rudolf Nureyev. The first half, especially the unblinking initial 10 pages, a hypnotic rush of brutal war imagery and an unfurling of the devastation that a winter campaign visits on men, is about Russia. The last half of the book, after the young peasant dancer becomes a beloved, controversial icon, revels in the strange glow of celebrity. Obviously, the contrast between the two could not be more stark. The effect is similar to watching Nureyev explode from the stage to the air: an unearthly transformation, an angry spectacle, an overwhelming charge.
It's all part of McCann's technique: He starts wide and slowly closes in on Nureyev, swirling around and around him like the whirl of sand that produces a genie. When the dust settles, there should stand the beautiful, arrogant dancer, hands on hips, jaw clenched, leg muscles tight -- or so we hope. Certainly, McCann briefly summons up Nureyev, and right down to the startling size of his you-know-what, but Nureyev, whoever he is, disappears just when McCann gets close. At times, this can be frustrating; by the end of "Dancer," McCann proves his method to be entirely appropriate for his elusive subject.
The novel begins with the dancer as a poor rebellious child. McCann depicts the gray, claustrophobic, war-torn despair that Nureyev will eventually leave behind: "The local guards stood weary against the pillars under red metal signs for rural electrification that swung in the breeze -- Our Great Leader Is Bringing Electricity to You! -- and a smell penetrated the air, foreshadowing the soldiers, sweat and rot, and each winter afternoon a 6-year-old boy, hungry and narrow and keen, sat on a cliff above the river, looking down at the trains, wondering when his own father would be coming home and whether he would be broken just like the ones they were lifting from beneath the steam and the bugles."
McCann's attention to Russia eventually makes Nureyev's departure, and his glamorous life afterward, all the more stunning. Very soon after his father returns from the war, the boy begins taking dance lessons in secret, a surprising betrayal to his poverty-stricken family. We don't see inside the young dancer's mind, but at the same time we know that this is Nureyev -- head held impossibly high, walking proudly, his back to the world -- brave enough to believe that he owes a greater duty to his gifts than to his homeland or even to his family.
A convincing rendering of a historical figure, and a notorious one, is a risky task; McCann's solution is to shift perspectives among various people in Nureyev's life, from his first ballet instructor to his resentful sister to Margot Fonteyn to his British shoemaker. Some might be disappointed that McCann only attempts Nureyev's point of view once, and in rigid, diary form. And it does feel somewhat slapdash compared to the fiery, flourishing passages that McCann devotes to minor characters. The result, however, is remarkable: What McCann imagines so beautifully is the way a hero walks through life somewhat differently from the rest of us, the mere breeze of his passing setting off a thousand ripples of change, both good and bad.
Still, you can't help but wonder what, say, a long passage about Nureyev's close friend Victor Pareci's insane, drug-addled social life, for all its fun and romp and speed, really adds to the novel. It's 30-some pages of "and after checking the baths thoroughly Victor still finds no sign, so he steps out in the street, looks right and left, even jogs to the corner, but the avenue is curiously quiet and sinister, not a soul breaking its shadows, dangerous times, there have been beatings of gay men, but you live your life only as long as it lives you, so Victor starts to walk," and so on.
Eventually, Pareci disintegrates from AIDS, not an altogether surprising end to the same sort of promiscuous life that Nureyev enjoyed. Nureyev lives longer (he too died of AIDS in 1993, but McCann doesn't write about that), dances until he's 50. People decay around the brilliance of the dancer; he is hurt but he goes on just as he had as a child. How? Why? "Dancer" is full of simple answers, yet McCann is wise enough to allow a sense of mystery to shroud them.
Ultimately, McCann's decision to hold Nureyev at arm's length captures something more interesting than a psychoanalytical probing might have revealed. When someone is as famous, as beautiful, as breathtakingly talented, as infuriatingly self-absorbed -- and brings people so much pleasure -- as Nureyev, those around him want more than he can possibly give, because he seems to be more than just a man. Rather than serving up his own version of Nureyev's soul, McCann prefers to conjure awe, and the way the human heart breaks for loving something it wants but cannot possess. Nureyev still seems more than human to me, a feeling of wonder best celebrated, and left unchallenged.