Andrew Sean Greer takes the epigraph for his ingenious narrative from the writings of Marcel Proust, who speaks about yearning for a perfect love even in the face of past loves that have been disappointing. The choice of Proust alerts readers to Greer's concerns with the issues of time, memory, and transgressive sexuality in his intricately structured novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli.
The work takes the form of a memoir, set down over four months in 1930 by a man who will shortly take his own life. It is written on pilfered notebooks with a stolen pen. The narrator's “confessions,” intended mainly for the eyes of a young boy, Sammy, and his mother, Alice Ramsey—but addressed as well to the reader—move back and forth in time, becoming less cryptic and more revelatory as the narrator ruminates on the past. What makes this construction unusual is Max's peculiar physical condition: Born with the physical appearance of an old man, he gets outwardly younger as time passes. Now, as someone not-quite-sixty who looks not-quite-twelve, he bemoans his condition: “Inside this wretched body I grow old. But outside—in every part of me but my mind and soul—I grow young.” The only certain point of reference is that his real age and the age he appears to be always add up to seventy; born in 1871, he thus is fated to die in 1941, the date inscribed on the gold pendant his prescient grandmother hammered for him.
Max's physical oddity can perhaps be attributed to the moment of his conception, which occurred during the blasting of Blossom Rock that opened the Golden Gate for shipping. His Danish father, who several years later will vanish, sees the resulting child as an enchanted, mythical creature. His mother is a southern debutante who will become a clairvoyant after her husband leaves her pregnant with a daughter, Mina, whom Max will always envy for her perfect normalcy. His mother copes by setting down one rule for her special son to live by: “Be what people think you are.” This ensures that he will be constantly refashioning himself, trying to deceive others through adjusting his outward mask.
Raised in isolation from other children, Max thinks of himself as completely normal until one day at Woodward's Gardens, an edenic park, he meets another boy, Hughie Dempsey, who accepts him immediately, becomes his most enduring friend, and recurrently urges him not to lie about his age. From Max's skewed perspective, Hughie is the one who looks strange, and so Greer introduces the issue of otherness, or difference, that suffuses the novel, with Max variously perceived as an ogre, a freak, or even a monster—the last an appellation that Max applies to himself, not only because of his physical strangeness but also for the moral choices he makes.
At age seventeen (but looking to be in his mid-fifties), Max meets, for the first of three extended periods, Alice Levy. The character of Alice, along with Hughie, helps provide the spine for a narrative disjointed in time. First seeing Alice after she has been bitten by a wasp, Max falls immediately in love with her; catching a glimpse of her thighs through her pantaloons only helps feed his masturbatory fantasies. Alice, though debauched by Max, is actually drawn to Hughie, but Max insists that his friend break her heart by rejecting her. Performing chores that are forbidden to Alice and her widowed mother on the Sabbath, Max succumbs to Mrs. Levy's seduction, because he had doubted anyone would ever be attracted to him. When he confesses his true age, Mrs. Levy breaks off the affair and moves away with her daughter.
Max's friendship with Hughie—who studies law at Berkeley, marries, joins the Army, and has a son who (like Max's mother) will die in a flu epidemic—continues unabated. They revisit a desolate Woodward's Gardens and patronize a brothel run by the now-wealthy Madame Dupont, formerly a maid in the Tivoli household, who wants nothing more than to be treated as a lady but is mercilessly snubbed by the wives of her former patrons.
In 1906, Max, whose looks for a brief period coincide with his real age, encounters Alice a second time. They meet...
(The entire section is 1695 words.)