Saturday, July 22, 2006

I don't know much about loss. I know what longing is, but with loss, I'm a novice. I've had a few grandparents pass away during my life, but no uncles, cousins or parents. A couple friends committed suicide within a couple of years of one another. I guess that's the closest to loss that I've come that has seriously affected me. But I didn't love them so the loss seems vacant almost. I was mad at them more than anything and I still am. Stll, this loss is death and I know it can take on any personality, any form. Loss is a shapeshifter.

For the first half of Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety I was fooled by the author into believing I was reading a striking book on common experiences. Stegner's narrator, Larry Morgan, was a writer teaching at a Wisconsin college when he and his wife Sally meet the two people that will irrevocably change their lives. I have heard of people's lives being changed by a dramatic or traumatic event-a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam. I never heard of of anybody's life but ours being changed by a dinner party.

A lifelong friendship is formed that night, the bonds of which are never broken. A truly remarkable 4-way relationship. But it's the unexpected event that takes place on a harmless camping trip that has kept me thinking and rethinking what love and loss mean. Sally is stricken with Polio. The jubilant 30-year old becomes reliant on crutches and braces for the rest of her life. That's in the late 1930's. This to me is like a loss of life. Not to Sally, or Larry for that matter. Without function of my body parts, how could I live the life I had? Could I live a different one, one that would be dictated by my ability to get around, slowly and painfully with crutches and braces? But Sally never seems to hesitate. As readers we aren't brought into the years of struggle she must have gone through. Instead, Stegner simply refers to it in passing a few times. She has a sick body, but a lively spirit type of thing.

Now in the 1970's, Larry and Sally are visiting the Lang's on their much beloved estate in Vermont. It's the last time all four will be together. And they know it. Charity Lang is dying of cancer and has called the Morgans there to have her entire family around. Planning her last breaths till the end, just like she planned and scheduled the rest of her life and everyone else around her.

It was her death. She had a right to handle it her own way. But I felt sorry for Sid, a reluctant stoic, and I dreaded the coming hour or two when I would be alone with him. I was the person he was most likely to confide in, and I feared his confidence and had on tap no word of consolation or comfort. It crossed my mind, while I sat waiting on the lawn above the green and blue view, that down under his anguish and panic he might even look forward to her death as a release. Then I decided not. Charity had mastered him, but also she supported him. She not only ran his life, she was his life. I didn't like to think what would happen to him with her gone. His resistance and resentment were only expressions of his dependence. Sally resented her crutches, too, but without them she would have been hardly more than a broken stick with eyes.

It's this eventual loss that I've yet to experience and I'm in no rush to witness. But it encompasses humanity in tow relationships between husbands and wives. Is this passing something any of us can prepare for? Don't we block this inevitability out of our minds, banish death to the darkness of our knowing? At least I try to.

At times Stegner scared me with his frankness...with the truth. It's uncharacteristic to read such things about love and life. It's all too real, a little to close for comfort, but Stegner steps over the boundary of conventional literature and christens the reader with the true word of truth.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

If I had to describe Malamud's The Assistant after the first 100 pages or so, I'm certain my summary would have failed miserably. It is not a story about deprivation or about loneliness. It is not a story about lost chances and desperation. It is a story about survival and hope. It is a story about redemption and aspiration. The heart of the novel is how we all struggle to survive in the world we live in, in the world that has formed around us. Sometimes it's because of our own actions, but oftentimes, it's the environment that shapes our world and darkens the doorways. But we always have hope. Morris Bober had hope. Helen Bober had hope. Frank Alpine had hope. And in times of disaster, when the lighted path fails to show itself, hope is our Beatrice. Whether it's Frank's hope to repay a debt that has sunken his soul or whether it's Helen's hope to go to college and better her life. This hope gets us through the long impenetrable months of solitude and loneliness.

Waking, she fought an old distrust of the broken-faced stranger, without success. The stranger had changed, grown unstrange. That was the clue to what was happening to her. One day he seemed unknown, lurking at the far end of an unlit cellar; next he was standing in sunlight, a smile on his face, as if all she knew of him and all she didn't, had fused into a healed and easily remembered whole.

Malamud gave Frank the passion and Helen the feelings and thoughts. The dichotomy of characters intriguing...partly because it goes against stereoptypes, but mostly because it gave the book movement. The characters, though sometimes lacking vigor to struggle through life, became people I knew. They were me and I was them. Part Frank, part Helen, part Morris. Malamud captured my humanity in a few characters in a couple hundred pages. Knowing my thoughts and writing what I would have said, Malamud is the voice of the street of New York and Boston. Moscow and Chicago. He knows us all so well.

Just finished:
Bernard Malamud The Assistant

Now reading:
Wallace Stegner Crossing to Safety
Plutarch Makers of Rome

Monday, July 10, 2006

Almost four weeks away from the blogosphere. My hiatus began with computer problems, making posts became impossible. Then one week of not blogging turned into two weeks of lounging and trying to enjoy the summer. I took from the midsummer what I could and my reading and writing ways are back. I only read Walker Percy's The Moviegoer and Michael Dirda's Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life.

My summer reading books are piling up beneath my desk, ever closer to toppling over and scattering under the bed. Listening to the MLB All-Star Home Run contest, I'm trying to finish Bernard Malamud's The Assistant. I always thought it was about a young professional in the corporate world. Don't ask why. I just did. I couldn't have been further from the truth and that's a good thing. Malamud has painted a painfully real portrayal of not just urban life, but life. A struggling grocer in New York, Morris Bober, is mugged by two assailants. Alone, this act is nothing too unusual. However, one of the thieves comes back to help the grocer, to repay what he stole. He doesn't tell the grocer, or the grocer's wife that he was one of the robbers, but he works hard in the store paying the money back, but continuing to pilfer here and there.

It's a story of redemption, religion and love. Because not only does Frank Alpine try and redeem himself, but he falls for Morris's daughter Helen. For any male reader, Helen is the ideal.

He asked her what book she was reading.
The Idiot. Do you know it?
No. What's it about?
It's a novel.
I'd rather read the truth, he said.
It is the truth.

This is Helen. This is my Helen.

Now reading:
Bernard Malamud The Assistant
Plutarch The Makers of Rome