A novel about a curmudgeonly Irish-American poet on the verge of fading into the abyss of Alzheimer’s? Sounds like a recipe for caricature, right? Stir in the obligatory affection for Jameson’s, the renunciation of middle-class conformity, the adoration of language, and you’ve got the mix just where the lazy reader wants it.
But Roger Rosenblatt is no lazy writer, and he’ll cotton to no readers of that ilk. Rosenblatt first rose to prominence as the sculptor of beautifully crafted essays for Time, back when it was a real magazine, and then went on to produce a stream of novels and nonfiction. As a college teacher, at Harvard and Stony Brook, he has introduced several generations of students to modern poetry and Irish literature. Most recently, his books “Making Toast” and “Kayak Morning” mourned the death of his 38-year-old daughter, while “The Boy Detective,” a memoir, plumbed the mysteries of memory.
Into “Thomas Murphy,” his new novel, Rosenblatt has poured all of this experience. Though laced with melancholy, it’s written with giant helpings of joie de vivre, as if its eponymous hero were racing to pack in a lifetime’s worth of rapture into the days he has left.
Murph, as he calls himself, lives alone in the legendary Belnord, a mammoth apartment building, complete with courtyard, on New York’s Upper West Side. But his thoughts take him just as often to Inishmaan, the Irish isle of his boyhood. So his present is filled to overflowing with the past, both streaming ceaselessly into each other.
From the past looms Oona, the wife who gave as lovingly and fiercely as she got. In the present, Murph’s love reaches out to embrace his daughter Maire and 4-year-old grandson William.
The novel proceeds, somewhat arbitrarily, via a series of first-person vignettes, ruminations, memories and fantasies. Rosenblatt charges most of this narrative with panache, though some episodes do suffer from being faux Irish or faux “poetic.” Many are winningly odd and musical, offbeat hymns marching to an unorthodox drummer.
Murph offers himself as our wry, impertinent, ornery guide into the dilemmas of aging. He’s not about to go gentle into that night of unknowing. Maire tries to herd him into a neurologist’s office. (Unbeknown to Murph, she’s about to jump to London for a high-powered job and hopes to get him help before leaving.) When he finally succumbs to her pleas, he can’t help being uppity, poking fun at brain scans and memory-testing questionnaires.
The story’s weakest element takes place, for all the reader knows, inside Murph’s head. A plot about a young woman revitalizing an older man is such a cliché that one wonders why the author has resorted to it.
In this case, Sarah is the blind wife of a stranger who approaches Murph in a bar with a bizarre request: You’re the poet, so please explain to my wife that I’m dying. I just don’t have the words for it. At first, Murph refuses, but then gets drawn in against his will, ends up meeting her and finds himself falling in love. She’s Oona reincarnated, he tells himself, in justification. Whether it occurs inside the character’s head or not, this reader just wishes the author had nudged Murph in another direction.
Rosenblatt does make Murph into a credible bon vivant, punster, ironist and, what’s hardest of all, poet. He concocts a Murphy poem that’s actually pretty good. But it’s his musings on the art of making poems that resonate most with me.
Poems, Murph says, should consist of “two parts rocks, one part daisy . . . If the rocks aren’t in the poem, you won’t be able to appreciate the daisy. . . . You want hard language to convey soft thought, because in the end all poetry is about love, and no one wants love without a backbone.”
That’s about as good a definition of poetry as I’ve ever read.
Murph is the kind of word-drunk man who loves to string together lines from favorite poems, reciting them as one grand Joycean mash-up, the sound of the accumulated words “senseless, illogical, beautiful.”
“Thomas Murphy” is a joyous ode to language as it gropes to give voice to the ineffable. It’s got the rock-to-daisy ratio just about right.
Roger Rosenblatt reads from “Thomas Murphy” on Jan. 22 at the Book Revue in Huntington.