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...
(The entire section is 849 words.)