My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Oh for a change of heart — a true change of heart! Herzog, Saul Bellow.
Everything [Morris] had rejected in his father turned out to be true or correct: the parsimony, the frugality, the strictures, the chastity, the faithfulness. His father had been maniacal about living honestly and with integrity. He had recycled before it was in vogue. He had tithed more than ten percent. He had sheltered the homeless and fed the poor. He was not wasteful or degenerate. Many of these things Morris had rejected. He had thrown out the old and gathered up the new, the modern, the material, as if the past could be thrown out like a heap of garbage. It turned out that his father, in his stinginess and harshness, had been quite right about the world. It was damned.
Morris Schutt has reason to be so dour in his appraisal of things. At 51, his particular mid-life crisis is exacerbated by the entirely senseless death of his son — whom he goaded into joining the Army, then deploying for Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire. Morris, who writes a newspaper column that trades on wry observations of family life, now finds himself writing just candidly enough to get himself into trouble, and not candidly enough to climb out of it. This habit of half-measured caution spins Morris out of his marriage and into a weird moral limbo where he struggles to find purchase.
Morris's measured disclosures attract the attentions of another grieving parent — a mother in Minnesota, who's lost a son in Iraq. She and Morris exchange e-mails, then quickly switch to letters (a romantically antiquated form of discourse that also has the benefit of being more private and secure). Morris's curiosity gets the better of them both, and they meet in a Minneapolis hotel room. But Morris, who has revealed so much and so little to her, is unable to consummate the affair. For sexual release, or what passes for it, he needs the anonymity of call girls.
But here, too, he is foiled, when he discovers that his forthcoming escort is in fact a girl who used to date his late son. Now he — and she — know just enough to put him off the pursuit of sexual congress, and he takes it upon himself to nudge her toward respectability. The truth is the only person he's acquired any real intimacy with is his wife Lucille. And he has shut her out with his increasingly erratic and irresponsible behaviour — which now includes selling off all his assets for cash in a safe, and writing peevish letters to gun manufacturers, and the Prime Minister who OK'd their purchase and dispatch.
The epistolary aspect of the novel has drawn comparisons to Saul Bellow's Herzog (as does the above quote, which Bergen uses to preface the novel). It's a risky gambit on Bergen's part, and some reviewers gently note that Bergen doesn't quite reach the same heights of unhinged rapture that Bellow managed. I think this is an unfortunate distraction — Morris Schutt is not Moses Herzog, as Morris in fact points out to himself. Bergen's Morris is a man who, despite his penchant for reckless acting out, simply cannot shake his inherently instinctual cautiousness. Even Morris's raptures — of anger, despair, naked self-awareness — will be carefully measured affairs.
“To finish with Herzog, I meant the novel to show how little strength 'higher education' had to offer a troubled man.” Saul Bellow, in his forward to Allan Bloom's The Closing Of The American Mind.
Here, I think, is where Bergen's intentions are more closely aligned with Bellow — although, again, because the story is filtered through Morris's perspective, it is a growing self-awareness leavened by caution, even timidity.
Morris spots a beloved and admired professor — “Professor Karle” — from his university days, riding a bicycle rather painfully. Morris recalls Karle as a man of vibrant intelligence, who diligently applied himself to a full and virtuous life beneath the awareness of death, and doing what he could to nurture this awareness in his students. Some weeks later, Karle succumbs to cancer. Morris declines to attend the funeral, but later purchases a few boxes of books from the man's library, which he scours in search of answers through his dilemma. He latches onto a few wise-sounding tidbits, but has to finally admit he does not have the same tenacity of focus that his former prof did.
He returns to his Divorced Men's Support Group, and drifts in and out of revery:
Doug, early in September at one of the first meetings, had talked about the individual, and how, for all the complaints about the plight one might find oneself in, most people wouldn't change places with another even if begged or paid. “Most of us are, healthily, in love with ourselves. This is necessary.” True, very true, Morris thought, though he couldn't imagine why some of these poor men wouldn't want to be him. He was fit, somewhat popular, not bad looking, had money, drove a Jaguar, slept with escorts, had free time, was intelligent, read and sort of understood Tillich, possessed an okay jump shot, and with the aid of several ancient guides such as Plato, he was slowly crawling up out of the cave. On the other hand, when he looked at the men around him in the group, he wanted nothing to do with their lives. Doug, the egalitarian leader? No, too old and boring. Mervine? Too pitiful, too painful to consider. Peter, the Filipino who lived with seventeen other family members? No, too servile, too simple. Ezra, the fallen Jew? No, though there was something attractive about the tribal camaraderie. Morris had been raised a Mennonite stoic in a tribe that wasn't a tribe at all, but more a failed cult whose main sources of entertainment were music, wordplay, and suffering. He had shucked that off quite quickly. And so on. If he would be forced to choose under the pressure of torture, he would surrender to the possibility of something beyond this room, into the realm of film. He would be Jason Bourne, and he would marry Mia from Pulp Fiction, and they would live in humid bliss on a small island off the coast of Cambodia.
So far as “ideals” go, this one is not just an unattainable fantasy, but one that looks pallidly bourgeois next to the soppy-stern religious ideal he was raised in.
Morris slowly returns his attention to his surviving family, including his father, who is in the early stages of dementia. Morris recalls with some distaste the religious extremes his father committed the entire family to, including a cockamamie “God will provide” missionary foray into the Congo. But as much as Morris may be discomfited by his father's ardour, the actions and disclosures of his late son prove just as nettlesome. The boy claimed to enjoy not just military life, but the carnage that came with it in Afghanistan.
A reader can easily spot the “changes of heart” that occur in this novel from one generation to the next. But it is Morris's cautious nature that proves to be the most striking anomaly — the truly radical departure — in the Schutt family line. The necessary changes of heart in a given lifetime are a subtler, nearly invisible business — which Bergen has explored with an exquisite and humane delicacy.
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