Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 922

Close Enough to Touch presents a colorful assembly of characters, most of whom are sketched for us as succinct, comic caricatures by the narrator, Matt Moran. Matt, whose voice and perceptions dominate the novel, is the most fully realized character, followed closely by Margaret Chasen. Although not treated with the quick, reductive technique of caricature, Dory Gunderson, as well as Matt's father, stepmother, and grandmother are all drawn in more limited detail.

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Matt is athletic, intelligent, and introverted, a loner by nature made more so by Dory's death. As a removed observer of his suburban world, he has a gift for seeing the comic and ironic elements of life but without becoming bitter or cynical. He exhibits a talent for the quick, witty, and sometimes trenchant generalization. He comments on Dory's upper-crust friends that "They aren't carrying money. The rich never do." And of his stepmother smoking low-tar cigarettes under the kitchen exhaust fan he observes that "We live in an age of anxious vices." Although Matt is withdrawing due to Dory's death, he often shows an ability to be candid and open in conversing about his feelings, talking to his father about his unconsummated sexual love for Dory, and finally announcing his love for Margaret to her in front of her date at the senior prom. Despite such moments, Matt is frequently too controlled and deliberate. He seems compelled to plan ways to exercise his grief over Dory's death—by pushing himself in distance running, getting drunk alone on the Lake Michigan beach, going off to the cottage with plans to drop out of school. However, his emotional release finally comes more spontaneously after he meets Margaret Chasen and falls in love again. Matt meets Margaret as she is lying, at first unconscious, in a ditch where she has been thrown by her horse. She is strong-willed, assertive, and at first, impatient and slightly insulting with Matt. He is fascinated with her individuality. She is training to ride cross-horse because it preserves a tradition of the past. She attends garage and barn sales, reselling her finds at a flea market stall. And she knows poetry, introducing Matt to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child," from which she receives her name and from which Matt receives a heightened understanding of the inevitability of death and grief. Margaret's intelligence and wit are a match for Matt's, and she has a vibrancy, curiosity and enthusiasm that contrast strongly with Dory's characteristics.

We see Dory Gunderson largely as a fading memory in Matt's mind, a girl he struggles unsuccessfully to keep alive in his feelings. As Matt strives to keep her memory alive, both he and the reader see less and less of character while also realizing that there was not much character there to begin with. Unlike Margaret, Dory's identity is defined by a group, her inseparable friends in Glenburnie Woods. Insulated within her peer group, she seems to lack maturity. The most we see of Dory's character is in Matt's opening account of their return from the cottage the summer before she died. Matt and Dory run into stalled traffic on the highway. A deer has been hit and is kneeling, close to death, beside the road. Matt euphemistically tells Dory, that the police will "take care of it." Dory, crying, seems unable to confront the inevitable death of the deer or even to speak of it. Cut off later in death herself, she remains a memory of immaturity for Matt, who moves on toward adulthood.

The depth of the various characters depends on the degree of Matt's regard for them. His esteem for his family, especially his stepmother, increases throughout his struggle with Dory's death. His father, stepmother, and grandmother, although not drawn as fully as Margaret, are presented as understanding, concerned, and supportive. They treat Matt's single bout with alcohol with sympathy for the motives involved, and they try to talk openly with him about what he is going through. The remaining characters in the novel appear more as caricatures, the stock types of suburban high school life presented mostly in terms of exaggerated single traits. We at first see the fading football star, Joe Hoenig, mainly in terms of his comical hugeness. Among the members of Dory's group, Linda is described by Matt in terms of her long, nervous, birdlike hands, Carol is represented by her squeal, and Todd and Jay have few characteristics to distinguish them from each other. Bob Katz, the Contemporary Social Issues teacher, is characterized only by his popular psychology jargon. Ron Harvey, Matt's coworker at the clothing shop in the mall, is defined almost completely by fashionable men's wear, and a number of Matt's fellow students display personalities limited to the cars they drive. These minor characters make up a large part of the suburban backdrop against which Matt defines a more mature and individual identity. Although death is the central event in Matt's narrative of self-definition, the novel's themes also include love, social class, alienation, grief, and renewal. The conflicts which these themes involve are brought on by the fact of Dory's death, but her death alone becomes less important, as Matt learns from the Hopkins poem, than the fact of death itself. These themes all become intertwined as Matt comes to learn that one can fall in love again, that the past must nurture the present, that individuals matter more than groups, that alienation can be turned to useful contemplation, and that life renews itself after grief.

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