Thursday, October 23, 2014

Becoming an Old Man: Thoughts on Turning Seventy-Seven

     (The aspiring author, Bowdoin College, 1959, and the aging writer today)

While shaving one morning recently, I looked at myself in the mirror to discover that I have become an old man.  Since I will soon be 77, I suppose it's only natural to face the reality of aging, though even during these past few years there have been warning signs, like the inability to understand words or phrases uttered at a certain pitch, or a stiffness in my legs that makes getting in and out of my car painful.  Not to speak of the increased difficulty of walking the several miles I once covered easily every day.

             I may look old, but I do not feel old.  I don’t feel cognitively impaired, yet it takes me much longer to absorb a page of densely argued prose and remember the argument.  In fact, I sometimes have to strain to recall just where in the narrative I left the novel I had been reading the night before. Though my former wife claimed that I could remember every meal I had ever eaten, it is now a strain to recall last night’s dinner.  Typically, I forget the name of the most recent film I’ve seen or, more embarrassingly, the author and title of the novel I’d just read a review of in TLS.

             Fortunate as we are to have vital information at our fingertips via the Internet, and in a matter of seconds I can retrieve what I often strain to recall that was once second nature to me, I do miss the fluency of thought I once possessed, or the store of facts and figures, that made argument easier.  During discussions with friends, I’m much slower on the uptake; and I fear it would be harder to teach literature again because I can’t remember the scores of poems or lines of verse I used to enjoy sharing with my students, along with the facts about writers’ lives that help readers to place themselves in the poems.

            What hurts me—or my vanity— the most is that I now look like the old men I used to shrink from as a child on the Boulevard or on Main Street, the ubiquitous elders, who tipped their caps to our mothers and smiled at us through their dentures, men who seemed so old as to have been living in another time; yet they could not have been much older than I am now.  Though retired from post office or bank they seemed always “dressed up” to us kids, many, like our family’s lawyer Elliott Rogers, wearing Tattersall shirts and knitted woolen neckties, while today I and my contemporaries slouch about in worn jeans and ball caps, which, as a high school student in those adamantly hatless days, I would not have been caught dead wearing.  Are we trying to appear younger, dressed like the kids, or is it merely the fashion of the less formal 21st century?

            I wear a beard cut closely to my face and I shave my head, which I suppose made me look younger, until the wrinkles of my facial skin and the wattles of my throat became more noticeable.  Judy, my partner of 28 years, tells me I could stand up straighter and walk without dragging my heels.  She’s right, of course, though it has been hard to let go of that slouching walk we all emulated growing up in Gloucester.  I will never forget when one of my college roommates, who lived in Manhattan, had agreed to meet a Gloucester friend, who was visiting the city.  Though they did not know each other, my New York friend reported to me that he recognized my pal from home immediately.  “He walks just like you do!” he said.

            I now pay more attention to children than I did after my own children grew up, and I am absolutely soppy around babies.  This may partly be due to the fact that I have grandchildren, whom I love and whose growth and development constantly interest me—the way they speak, what they notice, and how they describe it.  I also believe that as I approach the end of life I feel closer to those at its beginning, if, as a consolation prize for aging, we have been granted a pipeline back to youth.  While I’m drawn to my grandchildren's openness to experience, their joy and wide-eyed attention to everything around them, I am fearful of their entry into an increasingly volatile world.  I’m wakeful at night worrying about how they will grow up in a society that spends so much less on education, while placing undue emphasis on materiality rather than on critical thinking or transcendent values.  Mostly, I fear a world of perpetual war.

            Still, my forgetfulness is a concern.  I walk into a room in search of something only to wonder what I am there to retrieve.   I forget where I’ve parked my car.  Worse: the words don’t come the way they used to, especially the precise names of objects or phrases that were once on the tip of my tongue.  This worries me because my mother suffered from dementia, which began to express itself when she turned 86 and could not remember where she had placed the keys to her car, finally losing the car itself when she went to the super market.

            My primary care physician tells me not to worry, I’m in good shape.  A neurologist friend advises me not to be concerned about the loss of details.  “Your brain is more global now,” he says. “All the better to grasp the big picture.”

            The fear of aging brings deeper, more existential worries, less about my physical wellbeing and more about mortality.  I worry not so much about dying as about not being able to complete my work through debility.   I’m haunted by the books I have not yet read and I’m equally fearful about those I still want to write.   How is it that the life of my mind has come into such focus as I never experienced when I was younger?  Is it true that the fear of death concentrates one’s attention?

            When I was in college I hoped to become a writer like D. H. Lawrence or Henry Miller.  I did not see myself as a mainstream author (my early reading of On the Road and subsequent engagement with the Beat and Black Mountain writers put an end to that), and I did not look forward to fame or material success, unlike my classmates, who hoped to become doctors, lawyers or CEOs.  Inspired by Lawrence, I wanted to travel to the American Southwest or live in Europe, writing on the wing or in rented farm houses in the Tuscan countryside (both of which I ultimately did).   Miller’s adventurous life in books inspired me to read beyond the canon.   Since I spent my final years in college living off-campus in unheated attic rooms, buying books with what scant money I earned working at the library or playing piano at fraternity parties, I had learned to live on little.  I wore second hand clothes and let my hair and beard grow long, staying up all night to read novels by Robert Musil and Hermann Broch that were not in the curriculum, while working on stories for the college literary magazine.  I even sent one to the New Yorker, receiving my first rejection. 
            But I knew that I was not a New Yorker writer.  Neither did I want to write like Saul Bellow or William Styron, though I still have a warm spot for the extraordinary prose in Styron’s first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, which I read during a long winter night, as the snow blew against my windows on Federal Street in Brunswick, Maine and I kept warm in a bathrobe and under a blanket.  My dream was to publish in the Evergreen Review alongside of Michael Rumaker and Douglas Woolf.  As for European writers, Sartre became my idol for his political engagement, while Moravia’s analytical depiction of sexual entanglements showed me how one could write about two people and derive a world.  And once I’d discovered Beckett’s novels and plays I could not get enough of them.

            I loved Sherwood Anderson equally for the flatness of his descriptions, not unlike those mid-western landscapes from which his characters were so alienated; and there was always Hemingway.  I had never encountered prose like that of the early stories, “Up in Michigan,” “In Another Country,” or “Soldier’s Home,” or novels like The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, which I have read and re-read over the years, as much for what they taught me about writing as for how those later readings took me back to the original ones and to the person I had been when I first opened their pages.

            There was Joyce, of course: unforgettably.  Though I read the major books, except Finnegans Wake, in college, my real encounter with Joyce occurred when I was living in Florence, where I read Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography, which led again to Ulysses and to a study of the role Joyce’s life in polyglot Trieste played in its composition.  It was in Italy that I also began to read the novels of Cesare Pavese, who became the single most important influence on my fiction during those years.

            But I do not intend to write about my reading here—I have written at length about that elsewhere.   I mention it only to describe the range of models that were available to a writer coming of age in the 1950s in terms of technique and style and the sense of possibility they offered.

            In the end, I did not become the writer I dreamed of becoming, the author of big, complex novels about the human condition, like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.  The human condition itself intervened—marriage, divorce, parenting, teaching, social work, writing when I could manage it.  Though I have published several books, I approach my 77th birthday with a sense of incompletion and the wish that I could have more time.  I understand from my long immersion in the lives of writers, that each one of us has his own path.  There are those, like John Horne Burns, who start with a flash and burn out quickly, just as there are those like Thomas Mann, who begin writing early and continue to write well into old age.

As vital as it may seem, youthful ambition comes at an age when we think we know what we want, but we do not yet know who we are.   We can hope that writing—and the living which underpins it—will help to teach us that.   Though I cut my teeth on avant-garde and experimental fiction, I did not become a transgressive writer.  Instead, my politics and my temperament have made me a social realist, influenced more by the Proletarian novelists of the 1930s than by what David Foster Wallace called “The Great Male Narcissists” of the second half of the 20th century.   My friend Charles Olson exhorted me to “stay local,” and local I have remained, writing largely about my home town in fiction and memoir.  I do not regret this.  Living in one place for the better part of one’s life becomes the only life one knows.  And yet, the life of a small town, especially a cosmopolitan community like Gloucester, can be a world unto itself, as well as being a reflection of the larger one.  No one has yet produced the vibrant novels about Gloucester that Jack Kerouac wrote about Lowell, though several of us have tried, especially the late Jonathan Bayliss whose “Gloucesterman” tetralogy may be one of the great American novels.  Those who have best captured the complex nature of America’s oldest seaport have been the poets—Olson himself, Vincent Ferrini, Gerrit Lansing, and Linda Crane.

            So what is left to me as I age?  I have completed a novel set in Italy and a sequel to At the Cut, my earlier memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 1940s.  I’m at work on another novel set in Gloucester.  It will be the last novel I expect to write, encompassing what I have come to know about my hometown and much of what I have learned about the craft of fiction.   I have not written the kinds of novels I envisioned myself writing as an undergraduate.  Instead, I have written the books I was compelled to write, books about Native American conflicts in Maine, about the lives of the disadvantaged in Gloucester, and about the struggle over the soul of my hometown as it attempts to preserve its gritty blue-collar identity in the wake of the collapse of the North Atlantic fishing stocks.  In my final years I would like to concentrate on essays and reviews, believing that these shorter forms will lend themselves more readily to the literary and political issues I still feel pressed to write about.

I want to live long enough to see my grandchildren graduate from high school, and hopefully even college.   I want to enjoy the continued successes of my own children.   I want to travel—I hope especially to return to Florence, where I spent three of the defining years of my life.   But mostly I want to end my days quietly reading and writing in my journal and walking with Judy on our beloved Plum Island.  I ask for no more. For I have just about everything I could want for a sufficient life—love, a comfortable place to work, and family I adore.

(October 23, 2014)