Fiction: Lopate's elegy to the city

The Rug Merchant, by Phillip Lopate. New York: Viking. 218 pp. $16.95. Phillip Lopate, who tackled the subject of urban life in his nonfiction ``Bachelorhood: Tales of the Metropolis,'' has found a fresh way of approaching singleness and cityscape in this, his second novel. Its hero is Cyrus Irani, a rug merchant in a dingy Manhattan neighborhood. Cyrus's family emigrated from Iran when he was a boy of 10. Cyrus, a lapsed Zoroastrian, still feels loyalty to his past and a longing for the solace of a faith he cannot quite bring himself to embrace.

Retreating from the relatively cloistered world of academe to the still more sequestered recess of his uncle's Persian rug store, Cyrus is a contemplative, shy man who loves his merchandise and its lore. Even though he lost the nerve to write his dissertation, he still dreams of contributing to the world of culture. Yet culture, civilization, civility, and all the subtler textures of life seem threatened - along with Cyrus's precarious livelihood - by hostile forces: His new landlords triple the rent on his store. This, Cyrus feels, is symptomatic of the widespread real-estate speculation driving small merchants to ruin and robbing the city neighborhoods of the variety that makes for true urbanity.

Perhaps more insidiously, Cyrus is threatened from within: As an introspective man, he broods on his failure to realize his dream of becoming a ``knight of culture.'' Bachelorhood isolates him further: Neither his rash visit to a ``swing club'' nor his family-sanctioned pursuit of a ``suitable'' Zoroastrian woman yields quite the result he expected.

Lopate has written a touching elegy to the city as a haven, not only for the individuality of diverse cultures but also for the interiority of the individual.

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