My sister recently recommended Home, a book she loves, by Marllynne Robinson. The book is apparently part of a trilogy, all deep and beautifully written, according to my sister, but Home is her favorite and it stands alone as a story.   I placed a hold on a copy at my local library and a few days later began reading it.  

The protagonist arrives at the ancestral home to stay with her old, ailing father in his last days.   On page two the narrator writes: 

Why would such a staunch and upright house seem to her so abandoned? So heartbroken?

Framing the question this way made me suddenly see the book through my sister’s eyes, our father’s eyes.   Our father, like that staunch and upright house, was heartbroken.    He was abandoned and heartbroken.  It struck me that in the 1,200 page manuscript I’ve written about the man I don’t recall using the essential word heartbroken even once.  

The human world is impossible to understand without grasping the mortal suffering a broken heart inflicts.   Heartbroken people try many things to not feel like their hearts are broken, almost all of it in vain.   Heartbreak does not heal, fade with time or go away of it’s own accord.   We are resilient creatures, our damaged nerve endings display impressive plasticity, an ability to regenerate and recover from many kinds of harm.  A broken heart is in a category by itself.  Difficult hard work, empathy, fortitude, persistence and a few strokes of luck can begin to heal a broken heart, if it is the right kind of luck.

Irv, my father, had his heart broken very early in life.  He didn’t have a single stroke of righteous luck, really.   Being an infant and child in extreme poverty inflicts one kind of permanent damage, life-impairing  damage already very close to heart break.   Having nobody in your life to love and protect you in that harrowing situation breaks your heart, would break any little heart.   Add to this poverty and non-love your mother whipping you in the face from the time you can stand, your father cowering, powerless, without the ability to stop your pain.   Your child’s heart will shatter into a million pieces. 

Hours before your death, eighty years later, you will tell your son “my life was essentially over by the time I was two.”   You will insist, after a life as a well-read, quick-witted and brilliant conversationalist, that you were the dumbest Jewish kid in the depressed little river town you grew up in.  Your son will express disbelief.  You will emphatically respond “hmmpf!  by far!”

Did little Irv really have nobody in his life to love and protect him?   His first cousin Eli, maybe, though he feared the tough, sandpaper voiced man his entire life.   Outside of Eli, who by his own admission more than once witnessed the whipping of baby Irv without stopping his beloved aunt, Irv’s mother, who?   Nobody.   Abandoned and heartbroken.   His entire life, a desperate exercise in not appearing to be mortally wounded.  

And yet, I would not reduce his life to this terrible misfortune, this cruel tragedy.    To do so ignores the admirable traits he also displayed, his principled morality, the struggles he wrestled with (even if not very successfully) not to inflict on his children the harms done to him, the many valuable life lessons he was able to impart to his children about mercy, kindness to animals, fairness, protecting the weak.    It would be a terrible tale without a moral, the tragedy of someone crushed before he was two spending his entire life desperately fighting the horror of feeling how he was crushed.  

Many years ago I sent a description, and a few sample pages, of my Master’s thesis/novel (the degree was in Creative Writing) Me Ne Frego (“I Don’t Give A Damn”) to a contact I’d been given at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  I have the concise rejection letter somewhere in my unorganized library of fifty to a hundred and fifty thousand pages of drawings and other papers.  The kind and thoughtful rejection letter was from a young woman named Straus, no doubt with literary credentials from one of our top Ivy League schools, who praised the writing but found the material, unfortunately, not suitable for their prestigious house to publish.  The kernel of wisdom she imparted was that every great narrative is the story of a dramatic change in the protagonist.  She had seen no such change in the narrator in the few pages I’d sent.   She wished me the best of luck, which I proceeded not to have.

Part of my father’s abiding tragedy was that he fought the idea that people can change themselves in any fundamental way.  I might think I could get a handle on my temper, believe I might make myself less easily provoked, become more gentle, but he was there to assure me at every step that my struggle was doomed, that we are what we are born and wired to be and that was that.   Better, he always said, to simply suck it up and act like a man.   And no, he countered, eight years-old was not too young to start taking responsibility for your own life and acting like a man.  

He had nobody to teach him any differently.   Nor did I.   I didn’t have a magical stroke of luck in my life that left me believing, and able to somehow confirm, that we can change fundamental things if they cause us enough pain.  I have seen it in two old, very dear friends, fundamental changes in character.   Further proof, for me, is my greatly improved ability to forebear, a stubborn challenge I’ve worked on for decades now.    I can now, for the most part, endure direct, prolonged provocation without completely losing my shit, that is to say without doing anything violent or insane. [1]  

In a way Ms. Straus’s idea about a compelling narrative necessarily involving a dramatic transformation of the protagonist (now that I think of it, she probably wrote her under-graduate thesis on that proposition) was reflected in my father’s last words about his life.    He lamented that he had been too fucked up to realize how much richer his life would have been had he embraced its many gradations instead of blindly fighting for black or white. 

Broken-hearted, that’s what the man was.   He had deep regrets as he was dying, and long overdue apologies that came very late in the game, hours before he died, that was as close to change as he could come,.   But, in a way, Ms. Straus, aren’t those both proofs of how much he was actually able to transform in the end?   Does that count toward your compelling narrative thesis?




[1] Sekhnet, in her infinite love for me, always likes to tweak me when she hears me make this claim, but it is a tic of her’s I do my best to ignore.   Screaming horrible things at a computer in frustration, or venting angrily about the thousand indignities we are forced to suffer for the privilege of living in an inhumanly capitalist world,  is not the same as taking a hammer and smashing the computer, or hurting another person.   Even if the computer is made by slaves somewhere so that the global corporation that sells it can triple its own value on the stock market.  

I have improved my ability to endure all this, though, it goes without saying (especially by a man who regularly waxes Tourretic) that I have not perfected my absolute equanimity.   That is not the point of the exercise.   The point is to avoid the worst of what you’re inclined to do when you feel angry.  That you rein yourself in and learn to take a breath when you need to.   That you are not distracted from the conversational point by anger.  Those things are all good, and each one of them is quite valuable.



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