This month’s fiction roundup features three middle-aged men in crisis. Thankfully, there’s not a convertible or comb-over in the bunch.
– Yvonne Zipp, Monitor fiction critic
1. “Northwest Corner,” by John Burnham Schwartz
Dwight Arno hasn’t seen his son in 12 years, when the 22-year-old shows up on his doorstep.
Readers of John Burnham Schwartz’s “Reservation Road,” will remember that the last time they were together was the night before Dwight turned himself in “all of a sudden and four months too late,” for running over one of Sam’s classmates one night on their way back from a Red Sox game.
Dwight, who served two and a half years in prison for Josh Learner’s death and is now living in California and working as the manager of a sporting goods store, has dreamed of a reunion with his son. But not, it must be said, like this.
Sam, a senior in college and a talented baseball player, took a bat to a man during a bar fight, and has fled the scene (rather like his father) without knowing whether he’s killed someone.
As he sits on the couch, not too near, since he doesn’t want to spook Sam, “an anxious penny taste on my tongue. My hands aching with the need to touch him,” Dwight understands why the boy ran to him and not his mother.
“Why, after all the years of locking me out, he’s finally come to my doorstep. This feeling of dirt. Unable to wash it off because now it’s inside of him and untouchable.”
Whereas “Reservation Road” toggled back and forth between the Arno and Learner families, “Northwest Corner” jumps between Dwight; Sam; Sam’s mother, Ruth, a cancer survivor who has divorced her second husband; Emma Learner, Josh’s sister, who hooked up with Sam after a party; and Penny Jacobs, the professor Dwight is seeing, who thinks she’s dating a blissfully simple, uncomplicated man.
Schwartz, it must be said, doesn’t seem to be terribly invested in Penny, and a reader tends to forget about her in between her chapters. And Sam is pretty much a sullen blank.
But in Dwight, Schwartz has created a character who has acquired enough hard-won personal honesty that it feels like almost a moral imperative to root for him.
Memory and the past are recurrent themes throughout, with one character comparing long-ago happy memories to a worn-out sheet, and Ruth regarding her memory as “not so much the proverbial sieve as an increasingly rusty grater, shredding little shards and slivers from the original whole.”
“Northwest Corner” is a compelling tale of a family — not just broken, but seemingly pulverized by violence — finding their way back together again.
2. “The Astral,” by Kate Christensen
Normally, not committing adultery tends to be good for a marriage. Not so for Harry Quirk.
His wife, Luz, is convinced the middle-aged poet is having an affair with his old friend Marion, and his protestations of innocence only enrage her.
(To be clear: Harry didn’t have an affair this time. There had been one, 12 years earlier, for which, he points out indignantly, he has already done penance.)
After 30 years of marriage, Luz throws Harry out of their apartment and shreds the poems he had spent a year working on.
At 57, Harry finds himself flailing: He can’t remember any of the poems his wife destroyed and keeps concocting schemes to get Luz to talk to him in “The Astral,” Kate Christensen’s follow-up to her PEN/Faulkner-winning “The Great Man.”
The novel’s title comes from the scene of the crime, as it were — “The Astral” is the name of the fortress-like building where Harry and Luz lived and raised two children in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “The place was compelling to look at from without, blighted from within.… Some claimed that Mae West had been born in this building; I didn’t see why that couldn’t have been so,” Harry relates.
Toodling around on a second-hand bike, Harry serves as a most genial, sad-sack tour guide, as he tries to figure out what happened to his seemingly happy marriage to the love of his life.
“We can stand here talking until we’re ninety and we’re gaga, and we won’t agree on what happened for those years we lived here together,” Harry says.
“Maybe that’s the problem, maybe that’s what happened. We spent thirty years under this roof together, and we have totally different ideas about that entire time we called a marriage.”
Poetry being somewhat less lucrative than, say, plumbing, and Harry’s severely formal style considered old-fashioned even by those who still buy poems, he gets a job as the only non-Jew at a Hasidic lumberyard.
Meanwhile, his grown son appears to have gotten himself mixed up with a cult, while his freegan daughter — the most stable member of the family — worries about her parents and sibling.
Christensen knows her way around aging, male types in a way that would terrify participants at an Iron John weekend, and “The Astral” is one of her most engaging reads, as both the reader and Harry try to figure out what comes next.
3. “The Girl in the Blue Beret,” by Bobbie Ann Mason
At 60, after a lifetime in the sky, widowed pilot Marshall Stone finds himself grounded by mandatory retirement.
Lacking any hobbies or a close relationship with his grown children, he’s not entirely sure what he’s supposed to do with the rest of his life.
“Asking a pilot to stop flying was like asking a librarian to burn books. Or a pianist to close the lid forever…. His mind entertained new metaphors every day.”
The day before his final flight for the airlines, he revisits the site where his B-17 bomber crashed in Belgium in 1944. Marshall had always regarded it as the “site of his past failure.”
But to his surprise, the villagers still remember the incident and treasure the memory of the aviators they hid from the Germans. To his horror, he discovers that one man was shot helping the crew of the Dirty Lily.
After the war, aside from a thank-you note, Marshall had never really connected with the people who saved him. In fact, he had done his best to forget all about it. “In the years after, he didn’t probe into the aftermath. He lived another life.”
Marshall, in fact, also kept that other life at an arms-length, preferring the view from 30,000 feet up — where no messy emotions were visible. “He had always been like a special guest in this house, someone who dropped in every week or so…. Home life had air of pretense, as if staged. When he was away, did [his wife] strike the set?”
Marshall returns to Europe to try to find the rest of the families who sheltered him for months before he made it over the Pyrenees to Spain. The title character was the school-aged daughter of one of the families, who would skip through Paris past the occupying Germans, leading pilots to their safe houses.
His search is hampered by decades, old code names, and the younger generation’s desire to forget all about the war.
Mason, a PEN-Faulkner-winning writer who usually sets her books in her native Kentucky, based “The Girl in the Blue Beret” on the experiences of her father-in-law. Ordinary French citizens rescued some 3,000 downed American pilots, she writes, knowing they would be shot or sent to a concentration camp if caught.
Marshall and the other pilots didn’t make it easy on their saviors: they were too tall, had terrible accents and held their cigarettes wrong. Even Marshall’s boots betray him: there’s a terrifyingly funny scene on a train when he realizes he’s been leaving footprints stamped “USA” behind him for weeks.
Mason takes her time with “The Girl in the Blue Beret,” offering up a richly told tale that gives its main character a chance to re-learn what it means to be a hero.