Of Such Small Differences
Joanne Greenberg, author of I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1964) and several other novels and short stories, here creates a hauntingly perceptive tour de force that proves her to be one of America’s best and most trenchant storytellers. To enter John Moon’s life is to enter a world wherein mental conceptions matter as relevant only insofar as they can be validated empirically through John’s perceptions. For example, he can “tell time and seasons by the heat of the sun through the windows and where on his body the heat moved through the day,” loss is “ache-anger,” resentment is a “face-hot” feeling, and such a concept as rush hour seems “artificial to him, unreal.” Relying as he does upon his seven senses—location, direction, smell, touch, taste, duration, and rhythm—his is a startlingly poetic world of synesthesia, wherein music is perceived as “a changing sizzle in the floor like hot fat with egg in it, or a heavy rain with beats.” Yet his is also a world of unexpectedly abrupt accidents, inexplicable abandonments, and ceaseless quests into unknown areas which may be mapped only by stepping carefully through endlessly dark silence.
John has known a world of darkness since birth, but perpetual silence began for him when he was nine and beaten by his drunken father. While there were times his “father might come and pick him up and toss him, muss his hair, joke and laugh with him,” there were other times whenhe would be home slamming, breaking, roaring, weeping, and he would scream into John’s ear, “Blind!” and “My little boy is blind!” and hug him to smothering. Then it was the most dangerous. In John’s efforts to get away, to right himself, to protect his head or his hands, he occasionally hit something, broke, spilled, overturned, or spoiled it. As quick as water, the sorrow in his father sometimes turned to rage, and there would be a blow or blows, or he might be thrown against something violently.
The last time such an attack occurred it cost John his hearing, “his father ... hitting and shaking him so that his head flew back and there was an odd-sudden blowing. ...”
One would be mistaken to think from the above passages that John is a bitter malingerer, brooding over the injurious ways his father or anyone else has treated him. He is not; indeed, he loves and wants to see his father almost twenty years after the deafening blows, though the man (filled with self-hatred for what he did to John, and consequently having abandoned his family and attempted suicide before slipping into acute alcoholism) refuses to see his son. And John’s mother? She would rather be dead, she tells him, than to be deaf and blind like he is. Not having seen her in more than ten years and—midpoint in the novel—visiting her in Aureole, Colorado, where John was reared and where she, his two older brothers, and his younger sister (all married) still live, John feels oppressed by them, “their shame and disapproval hanging in the air like the smell of dirty clothes.” Nevertheless, although revealing the wounding matrix from which he emerged and to which he is still drawn by his need for reconciliation and recognition of his hard-earned accomplishments, the subtly drawn and poignantly devastating conflicts between John and his family are peripheral to his day-to-day existence.
At twenty-six John lives alone with Fourbuds, his cat, in a Denver apartment and works with other handicapped people at “the workshop,” where, when the novel opens, he refinishes old furniture; he later requests a transfer to another department, where he repairs two-way radios. After another transfer, by the novel’s end, his job is to size and sort secondhand clothes. To his handicapped friends, such as Luke, Swede, and Madonna, John is one to be watched because he is the only Deaf-blind person they know who lives alone, independently, and if he succeeds at it they may also. John is also a poet, earning money for poems printed on Handicards and sold to Hearing-sighted people.
His publisher, the spokesman for which is Mr. Sherline, wants only poems that deemphasize human differences and speak of life and human experiences from the perspective of a Hearing-sighted person; thus John has been deriving his poems from poems and stories he has read in Braille by such writers as Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. Although he has sensed for some time that the poetic truths he writes are not his, not the real truths of a Deaf-blind person, he has been proud to write “poems on subjects people liked best,” the subjects as prescribed as the end-rhymed and strictly metrical form in which he writes. “Your job,” Mr. Sherline tells him, “is not to state the Deaf-blind experience; it’s to show...
(The entire section is 1959 words.)