Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 849
Superficially, the situation in “Beyond the Glass Mountain” is an American commonplace. It concerns a very brief reunion of Mark Aker, a Yale University medical professor and researcher, with his former college friend Mel Cottam, a small businessperson in Iowa City, Iowa, after a seventeen-year separation. The reunion begins for Mark with a nostalgic return to Iowa City and his recollections of the college town and the college world that gave him “the best days of his life.” He returns, also, in response to what he perceives is a call for help from Mel. He hopes to repay a profound personal debt to the man who made those days possible. The reunion is cut short, however, when Mark cannot penetrate the wall that time and experience have put between them; he is unable to bring himself to pry into Mel’s private world and unable to find the words that would set it all right with them again.
Mark’s uneasiness about the long-delayed meeting is overcome, initially, by the power of Iowa City to trigger rich and complex memories of the good days of his youth, “the whole coltish . . . time handed back to him briefly, intact, precious.” “The passionate familiarity of everything”—landmarks, names, sights, smells, and sounds—includes Mel’s voice answering his phone call. Mark realizes that the poignancy of these “things” lies in the fact that they are all part of a storied past. The stories he recalls are made of modest material—sports, dating, eating, pranks—but they always involve Mel and suggest their closeness. Mark is reminded of how they had “made games of everything”; also, Mel’s house had been home for both of them. The power of these memories invests Mark with the hope that the old Mel is not lost and their old relationship still lives.
However, Mark also fears the reunion. He fears the possibility that he will find Mel drunk rather than sober, that the drinking is a sign that his friend has been deeply hurt or betrayed. His evidence for believing that Mel is an alcoholic is slim—the reader hears initially only about two drunken phone calls. When Mark calls Mel to announce his unexpected arrival in town this particular Sunday morning in May, he is relieved to hear Mel’s sober voice answer, but when Mark himself falls naturally into the bantering, clownish “talk” that characterized their college days (“Hello, you poop out. . . . This is Canby”), Mel responds by falling into his old role of happy-go-lucky, jocular sot, a role he sustains, to Mark’s increasing distress, beyond the “point where it should have stopped.”
Mark’s initial fear is reinforced when he arrives at Mel’s house to find Mel and his wife, Tamsen, having Sunday-morning cocktails. The source of Mark’s concern for Mel becomes even clearer in the scene that follows: Tamsen, highball in hand but also “smooth and sober and impeccable,” stands in striking contrast to spraddle-legged Mel; she gives every indication that she is “in command in this familiar house.” In college, Mark knew Tamsen as shrewd but dishonest (“she could lie her way out of hell”), as well as a woman of easy virtue. He has learned that Mel found out about her infidelities and considered a divorce but that somehow the marriage was patched up.
In a brief moment the two men have together, Mark considers urging Mel to leave Tamsen, for the sake of their child as well as himself. He thinks of asking Mel to come away with him and kick his drinking habit. The plea, however, is never uttered: Despite his former closeness to Mel and his desire to be close again, Mark believes that “you simply did not say things like that. Even thinking about them made them sound self-righteous and prying.” There is some invisible, transparent, but formidable barrier that separates them—a glass mountain. Even though Mel is as close as an animal seen by the hunter through the sights of his rifle, in fact Mark and Mel are as far apart as the two worlds separating the hunter from the animal he hunts—the animal seemingly indifferent to the hunter’s presence.
To these unspoken reflections, Mel turns “his ear sideward like a deaf man.” Mark, in turn, is shaken, refuses a second drink proposed by Tamsen, and begs the necessity of catching a 12:30 train. As the two friends part ways on the street corner, however, Mark tries once more to get his friend to “listen straight.” The response is even more disturbing: He finally sees in his friend’s eyes the “pained, intent, sad” expression for which he has been looking as evidence of the real Mel, but he also catches a “flicker of derision” on Mel’s lips, indicating that he still does not fully understand the man behind the mask. The story ends with the reader still not sure that Mark has seen fully or judged fairly the situation or the relationship. Mel’s derisive gesture marks his rejection of Mark as well as Mark’s friendly overture.
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