Shades of gray in fiction
Tim Sandlin has written comic novels about 13-year-olds and sex, about a young mother who drinks too much and misplaces her baby, about a president who dies in flagrante delicto, leaving the nation in the hands of a coke-snorting veep.
Then his father, Hoyt “Red” Sandlin, now 83, broke his shoulder. Sandlin, now 57, found himself doing a lot of waiting at his father’s bedside -- for information, doctor visits, medication, meals.
Sitting in the nursing home with his legal pads, he grilled the staff for salient details, many of which ended up in his seventh novel, “Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty.”
Published in January, the novel is a tragicomic story of anarchy and aging hippies at an assisted living facility in Half Moon Bay, Calif.. The futuristic tale was described by one reviewer as a “rather disturbing” look at “old age, death, infirmity and the legacy of the 1960s.”
Since America’s 78 million baby boomers started turning 60 last year, dozens of novels with graying protagonists and late-life themes have hit the nation’s bookstores, adding a few new wrinkles to the face of contemporary fiction and underscoring a sobering fact about readers in America: The most avid book-lovers are 50 and older.
Increasingly, so are the characters they’re reading about. And “the novelists are getting older” too, said Jane Friedman, president and CEO of HarperCollins Worldwide. “It’s really the graying of America. . . . This is not a trend. I think it’s the zeitgeist.”
Novels “are going to now have to have characters that the aging population recognizes,” she said, and “you’re going to start seeing all of those books in larger print.”
A year ago, Friedman’s publishing house unveiled HarperLuxe, a new line of large-print books with baby boomers in mind. And the California State Library launched “Transforming Life After 50: Public Libraries and Baby Boomers,” part of a national effort to remake the country’s libraries to better serve an expected wave of active, older readers.
Those readers can now encounter central characters dealing directly with the dilemmas of aging: Philip Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, 71, struggles with prostate cancer, impotence and lust in “Exit Ghost,” released last month; Gina Morgan faces menopause and widowhood in Alan Cheuse’s “The Fires,” published in September; and George Hall, 61, tries vainly to retire in peace in Mark Haddon’s “A Spot of Bother,” released last year.
In other novels, protagonists in late middle age deal with elderly parents’ increasing needs.
“A lot of the people writing now are in their 50s and getting to a place where they’re caring for aging parents,” said Betsy Burton, owner of the King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. “Caring for aging parents when you’re facing old age yourself is a new topic.”
In “Digging to America,” Anne Tyler’s multi-generational, multicultural, multifamily saga, grown children fret about aging parents while adopting baby girls from Korea.
In Armistead Maupin’s “Michael Tolliver Lives,” an aging gay man in San Francisco has to choose whose hospital bed to sit by: that of his biological mother, an evangelical Christian nearing death in Orlando, Fla., or his spiritual mother, a transsexual who had a heart attack closer to home.
And then there’s Helen Knightly, the 49-year-old narrator of Alice Sebold’s new novel “The Almost Moon,” who has been caring for her difficult, 88-year-old mother seemingly forever. Then she stops. Abruptly.
“When all is said and done,” the novel begins, “killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it. My mother’s core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old vase of flowers.”
Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage stores in San Francisco and Corte Madera, Calif., acknowledged that Sebold “breaks taboos” -- and not just the matricidal ones.
Still, the book is “brave” and “brilliant,” she said, and “anyone caring for a mother will have a very emotional reaction to it.”
There have always been older characters that the reading public finds engaging. Just think King Lear or Miss Marple. And death is one of literature’s core themes.
But one thing sets many 21st century novels on aging apart from their predecessors, said Anne M. Wyatt-Brown, co-editor of the Journal of Aging, Humanities and the Arts.
“Novels of decline” have been giving way to slightly more optimistic fare, she said. The pain of old age isn’t downplayed, but often “there’s a balance between loss and love.”
To author and National Public Radio book commentator Alan Cheuse, the number of novels that focus on love and longing in later life “is new, in that it’s the geriatric equivalent of the coming-of-age novel.” It’s also literary proof that Americans are alive -- and well -- in ways they never were before.
In Cheuse’s novella “The Fires,” Gina Morgan is being treated for serious menopausal symptoms back home in the Washington area when her husband, Paul, is killed in a car wreck while on a business trip to Uzbekistan.
Morgan has to fly east to deal with her husband’s body, but the emotional heart of the story is the couple’s long marriage. Before the crash, Paul tosses and turns in a Moscow hotel room, musing about his wife’s “retreating from desire, though not from love.”
He acknowledges to himself that he feels the same way and then wonders, hopefully, whether “once having put this desire behind us, like the cocoon or chrysalis of our earlier stage, we might love each other fiercely in another form?”
The Morgans aside, these books also have a lot more sex than earlier explorations of aging. “Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty” features an octogenarian orgy. An aging Michael Tolliver engages in a threesome with his younger lover and his dying mother’s hairdresser in “Michael Tolliver Lives.”
And the headline of one review described the graphic, post-heart attack coupling in Larry McMurtry’s “When the Light Goes,” as “bad porn for seniors.”
Robert Cotter, 67, has read everything McMurtry has written, both fiction and nonfiction. The widely traveled retired accountant from Austin, Texas, usually shares books with his grown children when he’s finished them. Not this time.
Cotter loved “When the Light Goes,” he said, laughing, “But I wasn’t going to send it to my daughters.”
McMurtry declined through his publisher to talk about why he wrote this novel now; it was published three months before his 71st birthday. But other authors are pretty clear: They are writing about aging because it’s happening to them.
In “The End of the Alphabet,” a brief and tender novel by C.S. Richardson, a 50-year-old Londoner in a long, loving marriage fails his annual physical and is given 30 days to live.
The ailment is unspecified, but the course of action is explicit. Ambrose Zephyr decides to visit with his wife all the places in the world he’s ever dreamed of, in alphabetical order from Amsterdam to Zanzibar, health failing a bit more at each port of call.
Richardson is a book designer who lives in Toronto. Born in 1955, he is part of a generation that has “considered ourselves, in essence, immortal,” he said. But “as we get older, we are starting to realize that we’re just as human as the previous generations.”
He could not have written this book 20 years ago, because mortality was the last thing on his mind, he said. “I was thinking about where the next date was coming from. I may have written a book, but it wouldn’t have been this one, that’s for sure.”
Sandlin, the comic novelist, said that before he was 50, he wouldn’t have been able to write about life in assisted living, which he describes as full of “cliques and petty jealousies and envy over who can drive and who can control their bowel movements.”
“Growing older myself, watching my parents grow older, having a couple of kids,” Sandlin said, “that helps me imagine loving someone so much and knowing they’re eventually going to put you in a home.”
Then there are detective novelists, who often live with their protagonists over multiple books and multiple decades. At some point, they must decide whether their characters will sprout gray hair and buy new technology or live forever in an unchanging world.
Lawrence Block made a conscious decision that his private eye Matthew Scudder would age in real time. An introspective gumshoe and recovering alcoholic, Scudder is semiretired and in his late 60s in the latest installment, “All the Flowers Are Dying.”
“I’m often the person in the room with the longest continuous sobriety,” Scudder muses, “which is the sort of thing that’s bound to happen to you sooner or later if you don’t drink and don’t die.”
Said Block: “A lot of what happens in books reflects what’s going on in the person writing it. . . . I’m in my late 60s also, and I’m sure I perceive the world differently from how I did when Scudder and I were both in our 40s.”
But baby boom protagonists have had more difficulty elbowing their way into romance novels, long the province of dewy-eyed virgins and bronzed heroes with six-pack abs.
In a 2001 forum on theromancereader.com, one reviewer lamented what she described as “age discrimination” in America’s best-selling fiction genre: “It’s a sad commentary that I can count on one hand the number of fictional couples who pass the big four-oh and are still hot and horny for each other.”
Characters’ ages have been creeping up in recent years -- but only a bit, said Karin Tabke, president of the San Francisco chapter of Romance Writers of America, who describes her heroes as “hot cops” and “hot knights.”
Like most romance readers and writers, “I want to be swept away by the love story,” Tabke said. “I don’t know how to do that with more mature heroines. If I wrote about someone like me . . . you’re 47 years old. You have four children. Why are you picking that guy?”
Which raises the question of whether late-life novels resonate with younger audiences.
Robert Teicher, literary fiction buyer for Borders Group Inc., points to Richard Ford as a cautionary tale. Frank Bascombe is the hero of Ford’s acclaimed trilogy, which began in 1986 with “The Sportswriter” and ended last year with “The Lay of the Land.”
The novels follow Bascombe for nearly 20 years, starting with an Easter week when he’s 38 and ending up at a Thanksgiving celebration when he’s 55. In the first, he loses son, career and marriage. In the last, he flirts with death himself, via prostate cancer and a gunshot wound to the chest.
Back from the hospital, on the ultimate page, Bascombe stands in the soft sand of the New Jersey shore as " . . . the frothing water raced to close around my ankles like a grasp. And I thought to myself, standing there: Here is necessity. Here is the extra beat -- to live, to live, to live it out.”
Such life-affirming revelations aside, Teicher said, “of the trilogy, ‘The Sportswriter’ was really the most commercially successful . . . As Frank got older, he kind of lost his audience.”
Ford found that out firsthand last month, when he appeared at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre around the time “The Lay of the Land” came out in paperback.
He spoke about that novel and the arc of Bascombe’s existence. He explained what novels are to him: “creative explainers” of life’s truths that readers would find important “if I could just make them interesting enough.”
Then the houselights went up in the ornate old building and the floor was opened to questions from the audience, whose members had just paid $19 to hear a 63-year-old novelist talk.
The first question came from a 30-something man and started out like this: “As I read ‘The Lay of the Land,’ I was thinking I’d like to read a Richard Ford who’s closer to my age.”
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Love and loss
Excerpts from some new American fiction in which characters confront aging:
” . . . he was still only in his sixties when his health began giving way and his body seemed threatened all the time. He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.”
-- “Everyman,” Philip Roth
“So that’s one funeral I missed, but these days there’s always another funeral to go to. They’re like buses. If you miss one, there’ll be another coming your way in a few minutes.”
-- “All the Flowers Are Dying,” Lawrence Block
“The tableau is stunning. Arms, feet, hair, all akimbo. Guy can’t quite figure which body parts go to which bodies. They are so old -- senior citizens should never be seen naked -- and yet their postures are young. Orgies are beyond his frame of reference.”
-- “Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty,” Tim Sandlin
“Why then do old people fall in love? Why stay loving? The feeling of love is so crucial to our species it is excessive, like labor pain. Lasting love is an act of will. It is a gentleman’s game.”
-- “The Maytrees,” Annie Dillard