Book Review : Unsettling Voice of Truth About Real Life and Its End

Life on Earth: Stories by Sheila Ballantyne (Linden Press: $16.95; 168 pages)

These stories by Sheila Ballantyne are deceptive. At first, in “ink on paper” and “perpetual care,” you hear a sappy voice, a grousing voice, a frivolous voice. There is someone here complaining; writing irate letters, wondering how and where to get rid of dad’s remains. The voice in these first stories finds refuge in cheap jokes or grievances against the bureaucratic system. What a drag, these deaths in the family, and how cheap that nobody has figured out how to deal with death in quite the right way! How can anyone in his or her right mind stick someone’s ashes in a columbarium, for heaven sake--consigning parched bones (in themselves a bit of an embarrassment) to something like a great marble chest of drawers?

But, by the time the reader gets to “Flaubert in Miami Beach” and “Key Largo,” the process of dying and death is back-dated. There are people here who are still alive, who had a life and, indeed, still have it: “ ‘Listen David You think I was born yesterday?’ She’s aware of the numbers, 80, but they’re out there-- they don’t have to do with her. In her mind, she’s 23. Dancing at the Avalon after work on Friday nights.” Real life is something else: The old lady being taken out by son and daughter-in-law to a dreadful restaurant where a blond boy plays the synthesizer, imitating Stevie Wonder, and the menu gets read out loud, because 80-year-olds can’t see that well in the dark.


Got Reader by Throat

Life is there, life is going on, it’s what you live, but there’s some kind of scam to it, it’s cruel, it’s tough, it’s not delivering what it promised, and, most of all, it’s going to end. And, by having deceptively conned the reader into paying attention by flip asides and cheap jokes, Ballantyne has already got the reader by the throat. By the last three stories, “You Are Here,” “Letters to the Darkness” and “Life on Earth,” she tightens her death grip. You are with her, in hospital waiting rooms, in conferences with doctors frantically covering their incompetence and impotence: “ ‘It isn’t drugs,’ he says sharply, tapping the pen on the desk. My heart misses some beats. And when I say, ‘If you’re right, then he has brain damage from the blood loss,’ I step off into space. ‘I’ve discussed that with the surgeon,’ he says quickly. ‘And we both agree that didn’t happen. There is nothing physically wrong.’ ”

Like fun, there’s nothing physically wrong! In the last three stories the narrator has advanced, inexorably, into middle age. Her daughter goes off to college, her husband’s kidneys fail. Her long spiral into death and dying begins.

It is another world, not death but not life either, and, like fish who learn to live at great depths, human beings behave peculiarly in the world of not-death and not-life: “People are strange, the ways they give: Some are there for you when you need them most, and couldn’t ask; others you expected, disappear. Some send flowers, and you never hear from them again. Some bring food, but do not stay, others stay, but do not eat. The phone rings and rings; you try to be polite, because they care. . . . You survive alone, and sometimes you will love again and sometimes you never do.”

When Someone Is Dying

Life in the hospital, life at home, when someone is dying and has died to you already. I don’t know how these stories will read to someone who hasn’t gone through it, but if you have gone through it, these stories bring it back physically--which is what the author intends when she says that heartbreak, heartache, is not a metaphor. “This is how you think now--in cliches,” she says. “Imagine that someone came up to you in broad daylight and tapped you on the shoulder. Out of the blue, he said: ‘THIS IS IT.’ ”

All this is, of course, what we don’t care to know; what we get drunk or make love or have kids or plan wars or run for President or even murder to forget. But we have to know it. And Sheila Ballantyne tells us. These are amazing, absolutely true stories. Just don’t read them the last thing before you go to bed. Life (and death) are hard enough already.