Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Middle-Aged Me and the Little Way

Walking home from a perfectly pleasant Memorial Day barbecue last night, one of the friends I was with asked about the purpose of the phrase "all things being equal." After a bit of discussion, he asked, "Is it related to 'six of one, half dozen of another?'" I said that the relation was slight, but that I use the latter phrase quite a bit. "You're dating yourself," he said. I assured him it was not the only habit that made me seem prematurely old.

It struck me even more forcefully tonight, back in the park, making good progress in The Moviegoer, that I've had the soul of a disillusioned middle-aged man since I was at least 14. That was before I had kissed a girl or had the first inkling of what I wanted to do with my life. (I've since kissed a girl, and I'm working on the second thing.) What I had to be so deeply nostalgic and regretful about, I have no earthly idea. It was more that I had already adopted my overriding philosophy about the world, which features nostalgia and regret in starring roles, and I just hadn't accrued the experience to justify it.

The Moviegoer kick-started this bout of self-revelation because I'm greatly enjoying it, and not least because of passages like this one:
We swim and lie down together. The remarkable discovery forces itself upon me that I do not love her so wildly as I loved her last night. But at least there is no malaise and we lie drowsing in the sun, hands clasped in the other's back, until the boat whistle blows.

Yet love revives as we spin homewards along the coast through the early evening. Joy and sadness come by turns, I know now. Beauty and bravery make you sad, Sharon's beauty and my aunt's bravery, and victory breaks your heart. But life goes on and on we go, spinning along the coast in a violet light, past Howard Johnson's and the motels and the children's carnival. We pull into a bay and have a drink under the stars. It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.
And you might say to yourself, there's nothing particularly shocking or tragic about a man at 33 nodding his head in sympathy at that passage. And you're right. It's a bit early in the day to be so wistful, yet it's not crazy. But that wouldn't explain the even more ferocious nodding I did, starting around 19, at a series of books that, looking back, were clearly influenced by the tone and concerns of The Moviegoer: Nothing but Blue Skies by Thomas McGuane, the collected works of Richard Russo, Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe novels, Jernigan by David Gates.

It's true to say that if someone had only my reading habits with which to make predictions about my personality when I was 23, an admirable guess would be that I was a well-educated, semi-rural functional alcoholic in his late 40s, recently divorced, alienated from his children and still in love with his ex-wife. Since I have no idea what this says about me -- or, I have an idea, but you'll forgive me if it's a bit too scary to linger on -- I'll simply wrap this up by recommending that you read The Moviegoer, whatever your age or outlook.


Blogger Charles said...

I was just thinking about Jernigan the other night. And then about Preston Falls. And then about David Gates and how talented he is.

1:41 PM  
Blogger elsie said...

I had to write out passages of The Moviegoer in hopes I would never forget them. Glad to see someone getting the word out.

4:57 PM  

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