Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen

This 2018 novel reveals what a wonderful writer Quindlen is. Why do I say that? Because nothing happens. And yet this novel is constantly interesting. Instead of a plot to draw one on, one is drawn on, instead, by a series of portraits, a portrait of a neighborhood on New York’s Upper West Side, where alternate side parking prevails; a portrait of friendly, and unfriendly, neighbors; and a portrait of a marriage and that couple’s family. And as we read on, each portrait grows deeper, becomes more complex, and the novel grows still richer.

At the center of this novel are Nora and Charlie Nolan, both in their fifties, who met casually thirty years ago and quickly realized that each was the partner they needed. Like many youth, their dream was to prove themselves in New York, and as their careers advanced they found an ideal house on a dead end street, where they encountered a group of interesting neighbors. As the novel opens, the value of their homes has appreciated so much that it has impacted the group’s world outlook. And while each of these neighbors is different, as are their relationships with Nora and Charlie, each is also wealthy and white, and they grow united against the world around them, especially as they share a sense of privilege.

Or, as Quindlen writes of that slow social awareness: “There was a shadow government on the block, a shadow government that knew where all the bodies were buried, a system of mutual dependence, one group needing services, the other employment. Nora was never sure where the balance of power fell.”

The neighborhood is tied together by a parking lot, created when an old town house burns down and is never replaced. Charlie is exited when he finally gains one of the six spots in that parking lot, while Nora is unimpressed. Thus are introduced a beginning to their differences.

One resident, George, assumes obnoxious control over the parking lot and serves to tie together the early stages of the novel. But the novel’s one major incident occurs when another resident, Jack, who has anger management issues, slams the group’s revered handyman, Ricky, in the leg with a golf club during a dispute in the parking lot.

This act of violence is the one major incident in the novel, and does emphasize the social tension that exists in their community. It also betrays another small difference of opinion between Nora and Charlie, over who is to blame. Which leads them, eventually, to doubt their respective roles. For while Nora feels at home in New York, Charlie yearns for a quieter, less competitive life in a warmer climate. She, after all, has a prototypical New York type job as the director of a Museum of Jewelry, even if she yearns to find a more significant job, while he is a frustrated investment banker, termed too decent to thrive in that cut-throat environment.

Many of the novel’s pages, however, are given over to normal neighborhood events, such as the gossip at house parties, the hidden envy behind closed doors, and the luncheons among competitive wives, as well as the raising of both children and pets, the inconveniences of pests and faulty plumbing, and the disputes with poor people whose rooms from a neighboring street face their the back of their town houses. All of which focuses on the privileged life of these neighbors and leads the reader to wonder what events we should be concentrating on. There seems to be no real story. And with no story driving it, there is no story to reach an ending.

And yet there is an ending, of course. Not an entirely satisfactory one for this reader. But we see a major relationship come to an end, and the author tries to make it a typical failure between two people who see the world from a different perspective and have different goals.

But life is not art, and art is not life. What works as an ending in one case does not necessarily work as an ending in another. And Quindlen seems to recognize this, since she tries to broaden the conclusion of her novel. She introduces the idea of an alternate universe. What if certain things in the neighborhood, she asks, had not happened? Or, more realistically, perhaps residents like these do not always remember what they had once had. They have a kind of amnesia, and they ignore the city or the years of their youth. “They’d forgotten where they had come from, how they’d started out. They’d forgotten what the city really was, and how small a part of it they truly were.”

I have to define this as a tacked on ending, an attempt to make this beautiful close-up view of a marriage and a neighborhood a stand-in for the grand and changing history of New York City. But as interesting as the neighborhood scaffold is, it is not strong enough to support such a broad interpretation.

So what remains with me is the incisive portrait of that family, that marriage, and that neighborhood. And I forgive Quindlen for the inconclusiveness of her ending, even as I wish the long life of her main characters had lead to more than a metaphorical lesson. Instead, she simply offers an open ending and suggests it is typical of life, at least modern New York life, and that everyone should now move on.

Some reviewers have suggested that this novel is best appreciated by residents of New York City, with its emphasis on the neighborhood, the upper classes, and the parking issue. But I would dispute that—despite a Google search that reveals far fewer reviews of this novel than serious fiction usually earns. In fact, I do wonder why this work has not received more recognition. Because the presence of a rich social strata and an evocative local environment are usually regarded as strengths in a work of fiction. And most effective of all, we have here a roster of interesting characters whose concerns are real.

One does wonder where Quindlen’s novels will go from here. Is the social environment now of more interest to her than strictly family issues? Miller’s Valley and this novel suggest that this may well be the case. (October, 2019)

Benediction, by Kent Haruf

This 2013 work is another beautifully written novel by this mid-western writer who recently died. It offers another of his portraits of the small town of Holt, Colorado, where we witness various struggling families in this middle-class community. We meet first Dad Lewis, in his seventies, who has a fatal cancer that will allow him to survive only a few more months. He has had things to regret in his life, and some of his ill deeds still haunt him, but he has tried to make amends for many of them, especially any involving his son Frank.

But this novel is to be about more than Dad. He is introduced on the opening pages more to establish the facts of old age, the limited future it offers, the focus on life’s simple verities, and the sense of family, how both the elderly and their children respond to each other’s travails.

Thus, we also meet Mary, Dad’s wife, and their daughter Lorraine; his widowed neighbor Greta May and her eight-year-old granddaughter Alice; the new minister Rob Lyle and his troubled son Thomas; and the elderly Johnson women, Willa and visiting Alene, who live across the field and feel that an eight-year-old may be too much for Greta May to handle.

Lorraine returns home from Denver when she learns of her father’s illness. Greta May welcomes Willa and Alene’s attention to her granddaughter. In the past, Alene had fallen in love with a married man and after losing him fears that she will be alone for the rest of her life. And so her mother suggests they develop a relationship with the child Alice. Meanwhile, Minister Lyle proves to be too liberal for his parishioners, preaching Jesus’ message that love and forgiveness be offered to both sinners and the poor, which many of the townspeople reject. He must also deal with his troubled son Thomas, who can’t adjust to small-town life after living in Denver. And finally there is Dad and Mary’s estranged son Frank, who is homosexual and has fled the prejudices of a small town, leaving his parents to yearn for his return because of his father’s illness.

Thus, we have simultaneous stories of parents and children, of young and old, of love and despair, of families straining at bonds, of young and old searching for hope, and of death’s presence in each of their lives. As Ursula LeGuin writes in The Guardian, “I find that Haruf’s characters… inhabit my mind permanently: they are people I think about. Their conversation is dry and plain, with easy, western cadence, and the author’s narration is similar.” She also writes: “Looking at the Holt novels as a whole, his courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love—the enduring frustration, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection—are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction.”

One reads with interest of these troubled people (troubled lives are a condition of living, Haruf says) because the author lets us see them from their own perspective and because he also sympathizes with them. As we do as well. Even with the black sheep, Thomas, and Frank. And a major part of letting us see that perspective is through the dialogue, a dialogue that is simple, that is casual, and that includes throw-away lines that appear in any natural conversation, often adding a touch of humor but also revealing character.

One should also note that Haruf is one of those authors who does not use quotation marks. If his dialogue is easily understood as dialogue, it is primarily because each new speaker begins with a new paragraph—which also happens, of course, when using quotation marks. So it has to be visual, the reason certain authors do not use quotation marks. That is, they see those marks as a distraction. And, of course, not using quotation marks here also reflects the simplicity of this author’s approach to his people and their lives. But using no quotation marks will work only if the dialogue has the clear rhythms of speech, not of prose. As it does here.

In discussing his concentration on life’s verities, Haruf told Robert Birnbaum of the literary website, Identity Theory, “There is nothing in these books that I am trying to write that is cynical or satiric or ironic. I am not interested in that. There is a place for that. But in my view that is a kind of easy out.”

For most of this novel, we are simply listening in on the lives of these people. The novel introduces us to multiple relationships, and seems not to emphasize any of the characters, or to be headed in any direction. And yet, we do read on. Because these people, their interactions, their desires and their troubles, are all so human.

And then, as we finish this book, we realize what Haruf’s goal is. He is writing about life. That is why there is no plot, no story that comes to an end. What comes to an end is one life. It is an ending that stands in for all our lives. It is a final 20 pages or so of a character in bed and slowly leaving this world, and family and friends reacting to that slow and inevitable departure.

And so we also realize why the author, the son of a minister, has arrived at this novel’s conclusion. As well as why he has created Minister Lyle. It is to introduce a spiritual dimension. For how can one deal with the final resolution of life without that dimension?

Paul Elie in The New York Times does find an incompleteness in the Reverend Lyle’s presence. But this novel is not about the minister, like it is not about Dad. It is about life and its end. It is about our approach to death, and how, in life or death, we search for light as our destination. It also suggests that at the end of life, as other characters live on, so life goes on. And that as one creates fictional characters one hopes will live on, so do we, as readers, all hope that our own life shall go on.

Haruf died the following year, 2014, and one wonders how much his knowledge of his own fate influenced the writing of this book. He did write one more book in his final days, a novel that focused on love more than on death, and it offered a different story of old people that I also loved. But in sum, I believe this novel offers more of a capstone to his career, and to his life, than that actual final novel. For this one is about the full gamut of life and, eventually, about death itself. (September, 2019)