Chapter 16
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Epic Achievement

Tracy Barrett’s brilliant reimagining of the Odyssey is a treat for young-adult readers

Tracy Barrett’s new young-adult novel, King of Ithaka, opens with a testament to the timelessness of teenage lust: when the story begins, prince Telemachos is busy ogling a group of bathing girls with his best friends Damon and Brax (a centaur who doesn’t quite see what all the fuss is about). “For centaurs (and satyrs too) it is the scent of female that is interesting, not the sight,” Telemachos explains matter-of-factly, as the girls sway and giggle in the water. A moment later, their idyll is rudely interrupted when Damon’s younger sister Polydora barges into their hiding place with thrilling news: a sail has been spotted on the horizon. Will the ship bring word of Telemachos’s father, the great warrior Odysseus, missing now for nearly twenty years?

Anyone familiar with the western canon already knows the answer: with King of Ithaka, Barrett, a senior lecturer in Italian at Vanderbilt University, takes her place in a long line of Odyssey-tweakers. Writers as diverse as the Greek tragedians, James Joyce, and the Coen brothers have helped themselves to what Aeschylus called “slices from the banquet of Homer”—and with varying degrees of success. Happily, Barrett’s re-imagination of the Telemacheai (the Odyssey’s first four books) turns out to be a wonderfully surprising, thoroughly delightful coming-of-age tale. King of Ithaka is first rate on its own terms; as a reinterpretation of Homer, it is practically divine.

Barrett’s novel shows Bronze Age Greece in all its primitive, ancient strangeness. Although humans mix casually with mythical creatures, all are firmly grounded in the physical world, which is nasty, brutish, and filthy. The oracle whom Telemachos consults before leaving in search of his father is a vile creature crouched deep in a cave upon a pile of her own dung: the instructions she issues (“Return to the place that is not, on the day that is not, bearing the thing that is not”) seem determined to confuse rather than enlighten. When he finally sets sail, Telemachos gets seasick and nearly drowns. On the mainland at last, things are no better; Nestor and Menelaus (friendly helpmeets in Homer) are self-interested, power-hungry despots. At their hands, our hero is kidnapped, betrayed, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Finally, it is not even his patron goddess Athena who saves him; rather, two of his Ithakan pals (Brax and Polydora) come to his rescue and help him complete his quest.

In the end, of course, Telemachos solves the oracle’s riddle, awakens to adult morality, and finds his father. However, nothing turns out as he expects (nor, for that matter, as anyone who’s ever read the Odyssey might expect.) Barrett, in a nifty sleight-of-hand, projects her version behind the scrim of epic poetry; in a perfectly crafted scene, Telemachos meets Homer himself in Nestor’s palace. “As he sang, I lost all sense of time and place. His voice disappeared; in its place I heard the snort of the king’s chariot horses and the cries of the people of Ilios meeting their death at his sword. I smelled the food of Nestor’s enemies, not the food that was growing cold in front of me. Instead of the rather short, sheeplike king, I saw a valiant Nestor standing as proud as Ares in his war chariot.”

And then, to our hero’s great surprise, he hears the bard sing his own name, though the story he tells is patently untrue. “What’s he talking about?” Telemachos asks Nestor’s son, Pisistratos. “I wasn’t welcomed like that, and there weren’t any other princes there.” The answer he gets explains Tracy Barrett’s methods, too: “Of course not,” Pisistratos says. “Nobody expects a poet to tell the truth. It’s a better story this way.”

Barrett upends our preconceptions without striking a single false note. After all, the bards were paid servants of the king. Why would they portray their patrons as anything less than perfect? But then she goes even further: when Telemachos, surprised by Homer’s blindess, asks what happened to the poet’s eyes, Pisistratos gives him a shocking response: “Oh, my father put them out. To keep him here. A blind singer can’t travel far, and my father was unwilling to share him.”

Nestor’s casual cruelty neatly sets the stage for Odysseus’s return. Without giving too much away, let us simply remark that the king’s anticipated homecoming is, in Barrett’s version, very much a mixed blessing. “Despite all our prayers and all our sacrifices to Poseidon, he has returned,” mourns the old nurse Eurykleia. At stake is not only the character of Ithaka’s long-absent ruler, but also the very nature of kingship itself. Telemachos must challenge his father’s authority, and in doing so change the very notion of what it means to be king.

It is strange to have one’s literary monuments tampered with, and stranger still to enjoy the tampering so. By the end of King of Ithaka, Barrett has pulled off an incredible feat of imagination and scholarship. She cuts right to the bone of the ancient story, replacing hackneyed notions of honor and nobility with a tale that’s monstrously inventive. King of Ithaka works brilliantly as an introduction to Homer for young readers who haven’t read the Odyssey—and even more brilliantly, as a deconstruction, for older readers who have.

To read Chapter 16‘s interview with Tracy Barrett, click here.

[This review originally appeared on October 1, 2010.]