CHATTERING MAN by Merrill Joan Gerber (Longstreet Press: $18.95; 210 pp.) .
“Old age isn’t for sissies,” says Anna Goldman, the 80-year-old protagonist of the novella that accompanies eight other stories in this crisp, assured collection by Merrill Joan Gerber. Widowed Anna, with her short skirts, her tart tongue, her two pianos (Mozart is her “religion”) and her practiced cynicism about men, moves from her apartment in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District to a retirement home, fully aware that it’s her next-to-last stop. She stares Death in the face, and he almost seems to wink.
Elsewhere, Gerber writes in a semi-autobiographical vein about Jewish girls growing up in the 1950s in Florida and New York--smart girls realizing that their fathers have been conned by business partners, that their bust measurements are lagging behind those of their friends, and that the doctor who gives them their first summer job is a quack. In the context of this book, these girls are all potential Annas. Will they, like her, find the spiritual resilience in old age to crack the habit of suspicion, see the good in rowdy teen-agers, dance with some lecherous geezer on the edge of the grave?
Gerber has an enviable command of tone. These are funny stories that nonetheless bear out Anna’s belief (as reported by one of her daughters, whose husband has committed suicide) that “we live on the verge of catastrophe, and the natural state of life should reasonably be terror.”
Gerber also has the ability to sum up character with physical detail or a few words of dialogue. When a girl sees a friend of her father’s “in his striped shirt with gold cuff links” applaud her mother’s piano playing “with the thick, pink palms of his hands,” we know just about how much we can trust him. And when Anna, seeing one of her grandsons set himself afire in a back-yard accident, screams at the God she doesn’t believe in, “Don’t you dare do this,” we accept her authority.
So does He.