Matt Forney
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Beauty and the Least by Andy Nowicki

What is the nature of beauty?

In many ways, extreme beauty can be terrifying, mainly because beauty is inhuman. The human race is ugly to average; obese Section 8 baby mamas, moralizing Baptists, drugged-up gays plugging each other in public bathrooms. When a man sees a beautiful woman, or a person in general sees a virtuous individual, their instinctive reaction is fear, fear of something that is rare, uncommon, and potentially dangerous.

Man is not a learning animal.

Beauty and the Least, Andy Nowicki’s latest work, is something of a departure from his usual oeuvre. A brief novella with elements of philosophy, it’s about the terror and reverence that beauty inspires in men. While it’s not his best work, Beauty and the Least’s crisp prose and daring approach to its subject matter makes it worth a buy.

On the surface, Beauty begins in familiar waters for Nowicki: the tale of another creepy yet compelling loser. The unnamed protagonist in Beauty is a middle-aged teacher who becomes smitten with a teenage girl, eventually moving to outright stalk her… at which point the book becomes something stranger:

Now it so happened that, with beauty’s poison surging under my skin, inducing a mounting malignancy of madness, I somehow hit upon this notion of name-knowledge as the one thing needful. It was this quest for nominal quarry that set me off on my initial act of fanatical imprudence. Seized by an idea, I carefully trailed my love after she departed from Mass one Sunday. It happened that she and I were both unattended on this day, her boyfriend being out of town for a weekend playoff game in another state; her parents having attended an earlier Mass; my children being home with my wife. It was an opportunity that I seized upon with wild, unthinking eagerness. In the narthex, I lurked unobtrusively, pretending to scrutinize a church bulletin while my target chatted with a few friends; then I peeled away as she made a beeline for her vehicle, a silver Mercedes minivan which surely she shared with her parents. Carefully, keeping my eyes at a level position, I glanced casually at the car’s license plate, excitedly memorizing the swirl of digits and letters as I strode to my own vehicle with excitement charging through my feverishly pounding heart.

Nowicki has a remarkable gift for taking self-pitying, deluded characters and playing them in such a way that their mishaps become high comedy. Beauty’s protagonist praises his obsession in ways that would be dramatic were they not played against the pathetic reality of his life. The book is brief (only about 30 some-odd pages once you exclude publisher Ann Sterzinger’s note at the beginning), yet it hits with you with the gravitas of a longer work, as Nowicki hurls scenarios at you and avoids wasting your time.

On a technical level, Beauty and the Least is on par with Nowicki’s prior works. It’s told from a first-person perspective, hearkening back to his first novel, the epistolary Considering Suicide, though this book is considerably more focused and impactful. Beauty also lacks Nowicki’s typical penchant for disturbing (albeit meaningful) violence, making it a good introduction for those who might be turned off by the more extreme elements of his work:

To be sure, I have long felt drawn to that which is beautiful. Indeed, how can one not do so? Beauty is all that one has in this bleak world; it is our only taste of heaven; yet beauty, far from being life-giving, is instead cruelly toxic. One must somehow take it into one’s heart without actually ingesting it, for absorbing beauty—that is to say, attempting to draw it into your bosom and make it your own—leads to death. I committed this crucial error. I presumed to take beauty into my very being, and now I am dying, for beauty is indeed poison.

While I won’t give away the ending, Beauty and the Least raises some scintillating questions about the nature of beauty. Our intrepid protagonist pursues beauty like a moth drawn to a lamp: mesmerized by it, he doesn’t realize how it can destroy him. Indeed, as his obsession with “Eve” (as he calls his beloved, casting himself into the role of the serpent) consumes every aspect of his life, the protagonist’s impotence gives way to action… of a sort.

In particular, the way the story concludes surprised me, mainly because it wasn’t as… gory as I’ve come to expect from Nowicki.

The one area I’d fault Beauty and the Least in is length. While, as I said, it gets to the point and doesn’t waste your time, in many ways it feels incomplete. When I finished it, I couldn’t help but feel that it would have made a good centerpiece to a collection of thematically linked short stories. That’s just the impression I got, though.

Otherwise, Beauty and the Least is another quality release from Andy Nowicki and definitely worth your time.

Click here to buy Beauty and the Least.

Read Next: Under the Nihil by Andy Nowicki