The main character of A. G. Mojtabai’s fourth novel is an unusual protagonist. Aging heroes in literature are not new; one need only recall Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (401 B.C.), William Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605), and the first great novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), by Miguel de Cervantes. Modern novels such as Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) continue to attest to the endurance and determination of old age. These books are likely to be regarded as inspirational by the young but perhaps contribute also to their impatience with the unheroic elderly who are more likely a part of their own experience. It is pleasant to think that one might develop into a grizzled hero, but clearly the older generation at hand does not often furnish authentic heroes.
A number of modern novels have as central characters older men and women who, far from striving for achievements of the sort usually reserved for the young, like Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote or Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, resemble those more or less passive and exhausted characters who frequently helped fill in the background of earlier novels and added perhaps a spice of eccentricity. Now they step forward as leading, and often viewpoint, characters. Whereas Cervantes’ and Hemingway’s old men magnificently resisted their physical decline, older protagonists now are increasingly likely to occupy themselves with the more mundane business of coping and adjusting. Thus, the heroine of Angus Wilson’s Late Call (1964) must endure the folly and then the death of her husband, take up residence in her son’s deeply divided family, and accommodate herself to an alien suburban way of life. In James Gould Cozzens’ Morning, Noon and Night (1968), a corporation president adjusts to reduce vitality and accomplishment. In May Sarton’s As We Are Now (1973), a sensitive and intelligent woman endures confinement in a rural nursing home.
Will Ross, the protagonist of Autumn, is neither heroic questioner nor patient sufferer. A retired accountant of thrifty habits, he has secured the means to winter in Florida with the rest of the summer residents of the Maine seacoast, but chooses instead to remain in his summer cottage. Will’s wife, Helen, is five months dead, and his son, Davey, has long since established his own family at a distance. Although Will frets about his health, his physician can find nothing to suggest that Will should relinquish his independent lifestyle. With quixotic disdain, Will rejects the role of typical senior citizen with its rounds of bingo and community sings.
Beyond braving the rugged winter weather and mitigating his loneliness, however, Will’s challenge consists of little more than coping with the unambitious regimen he has set for himself: a daily bus trip to town for groceries, sessions on park benches with newpapers, and migration between the only two rooms of his house he wishes to inhabit. In his kitchen, he eats cheap prepared food out of tins and listens to the radio; in his bedroom, he spends largely sleepless nights. This old man’s relationship with the sea begins and ends with daily observation.
The author has taken on the formidable challenge of presenting not only the viewpoint but also the consciousness of an essentially dull man with nothing to do. From the start, the reader is Will’s confidant, but his confidences are laconic, elliptical, utterly commonplace: “I’m famished . . . . Can’t taste anything . . . . Not a speck left.” He took up accounting, he reveals, because he had no way with words. The task ahead of him is, in Robert Frost’s words, “what to make of a diminished thing,” but he seems disinclined to make much at all of his diminished life.
In the first of the three parts of the novel, he visits the grocery store, his physician, a restaurant, and the house of his comfortable widow friend, but he rejects involvement. The titles of the six chapters in the second part indicate the outcome of his choice of life-style: “Night,” “Sunday,” “Living Room,” “Afternoon,” “Evening,” and “Fighting the Blues.” He has not fallen from any great height, but he has nevertheless reached his nadir.
Although Will’s imagination is wholly unliterary, he is living out his version of an American myth, his kindred spirits being all those socially inept and graceless individuals who, like Natty Bumppo, Captain Ahab, and Huckleberry Finn, scorn the social order and its amenities and prefer to go it alone or in the company of savages and pariahs. Lil Harmon stands ready to envelop him in domesticity, but Will’s repugnance for “the pretty touches, those odds and ends, little glassies, doodads” of her home is pure Huck Finn. He avoids his own living room less...
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