Given that Jill Ciment’s “Heroic Measures” opens in the months following Sept. 11, it’s hardly surprising that one of her geriatric heroines should find “the anxiety of being left alone in the apartment became too much for her . . . particularly as dusk fell and nocturnal shadows grew menacing, and her sense of loneliness and old age became inseparable.” What is surprising -- like much in this brave, generous, nearly perfect novel -- is that this particular character, Dorothy, is a dachshund. And yet, Ciment manages to pull off this risky, sentiment-baiting maneuver, an accomplishment previously attained only by the likes of Tolstoy.
Of course, Ciment has made a career out of avoiding sentimentality. Over the course of nearly 25 years, she’s produced an odd, iconoclastic body of fiction, with a short story writer’s affinity for revealing almost metaphorical detail. Her three previous novels differ dramatically from one another -- a wry coming-of-age tale followed by a taut, cool thriller followed by a lyrical, faintly absurdist historical novel -- but all are unified by Ciment’s cool remove from her oddball characters.
In “Heroic Measures,” happily, Ciment veers in precisely the opposite direction, offering almost unbearably intimate access to the minds of Dorothy and her owners, Alex and Ruth Cohen, a pair of East Villagers in their 70s, whose Cold War-era activities earned them a 750-page FBI file that Alex, an artist of some renown, is turning into an illuminated manuscript. After years of near-poverty, the Cohens are sitting on a gold mine: Their fifth-floor walk-up, purchased 50 years earlier for $5,000, is now worth a million. Before the market bottoms out -- and they can no longer make it up those stairs -- they’ve decided to sell.
The novel takes place over three fraught days, beginning on the evening before their open house, as they vacillate between eager anticipation and anxiety about what the future holds for them, about what it means to be old in a city -- a country -- that prizes youth above all. “In the early light,” Ruth thinks as she walks Dorothy, “the street looked tooled in silver, and she felt such tenderness for their neighborhood that she had to collect herself or she might start to cry: they were being wrenched away from everything they loved and knew just when their age demanded stability.” A moment later, though, she chastises herself for acting like “a frightened old woman” and wonders, “Why is old age synonymous with stability? Old age is anything but stable.”
Then Dorothy collapses, and the couple rushes her uptown to the animal hospital, only to find the city in the grip of terror. A gasoline truck has jackknifed in the Midtown Tunnel, blocking incoming traffic. Did the driver, who has disappeared, lose control of his rig, or is this another terrorist attack? Over the weekend that follows, Dorothy undergoes surgery, the truck driver hijacks a taxi and a bidding war on Ruth and Alex’s apartment ensues.
All of this, in Ciment’s controlled, economical prose, becomes incredibly suspenseful, due in no small part to the mundane difficulties Alex and Ruth face in their day-to-day life, navigating an economy and technocracy they barely understand. Threat is everywhere, from the “cell phone with two years’ worth of flashing messages (neither . . . know how to retrieve the messages),” to the remote control that Alex fears, as one wrong move might deprogram the cable box, to the wealthy, emboldened youngsters who traipse through their apartment during the open house, lying down on their bed and assessing the view.
That view is nothing much to speak of -- smokestacks, a patch of sky -- but Ruth has long loved it. As the strangers take it in, assessing its market value, Ruth finds herself, uncharacteristically, worrying that they won’t find it worthy. And this worry instigates a process of self-questioning that leads her to places she never thought she would go. By the novel’s end, exhausted by the activities of the weekend, she has lost one of the thick lenses she’s worn since childhood. Putting on her broken glasses, she finds that “rather than one eye of clarity, she gets two eyes of disorientation.” It’s a lovely moment, heartbreaking in its accuracy, but also an apt metaphor for the ways in which Ruth has changed. Her vision of both the world and her place in it has irrevocably shifted. She was right: Old age, it turns out, is not about stability, after all.
Still, that almost final moment, as she surveys the world without depth perception, refers back to a luminous passage in the novel’s opening chapters, when Ruth recalls being given her first pair of glasses, at age 9. “When she . . . looked out the optician’s window,” Ciment writes, “she saw that the foaming horse harnessed to a rag wagon, the beggar picking up cigarette butts, the beat cop, the newspaper boy fanning himself with headlines, the men waiting in line for soup, the blur of humanity at the nadir of the Depression, was actually made up of individual faces, each face, including the horse’s, expressing such blatant defeat or rage or worry or hunger or bewilderment that Ruth felt as if she had caught them at their most private moments.”
The clarity and poignancy of that passage is particularly intense, in a novel filled with many similar moments. But it also suggests a metaphor for the way “Heroic Measures” itself functions: as a lens through which Ciment enables us to penetrate the innermost thoughts of her characters, in all their fragility and tenacity, and in so doing to feel, like the young Ruth, “the first stirring of compassion.”
Rakoff is the author of the novel “A Fortunate Age.”