Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Understory by Pamela Erens

For those experiencing endless winter, I suggest Pamela Erens' The Understory. When I read this book last year, it was not winter, but The Understory brings the chilly like nobody's business.

The Understory is the story of a man whose life is very small and very lonely. Then he falls in love and it breaks him.

I know a lot of men with small lives. They tend to be unable to deal with change or closeness. Everything is refusal. Everything is resistance to reality. When the main character of this story, Jack, revealed himself to be one of those men, I couldn't fathom continuing the story. I got enough of that shit to deal with when I am not reading.

"My daily schedule was fixed: I rose at daybreak, walked to the park, spent some hours at Carl's bookstore, had my lunch, walked downtown, climbed the bridge."

The details of those spaces and places are what makes this book ring. His crumbling apartment is freezing and nasty in that way that cheap New York apartments can be. We later find, it is not exactly his, and not just because he is getting evicted to make way for a condo renovation. The routine places, the bookstore, the diner, feel limited and miserable, but since we are in first person, we can also see the comfort in that Jack takes in those limitations.  In the diner:

"Marion appeared over my shoulder and I closed the paper, embarrassed. I set the eviction notice on the table next to the coffee. Paul X. Giglio, petitioner to the Civil Court of the City of New York. It had yesterday's date on it, the twenty-third of November, and it occurred to me that my birthday had been on the twentieth. It was the first time I had thought of it and I had to stop and ask myself just how old I was. Forty--I had turned forty. I touched the hot rim of my coffee cup. I had entered a new decade of life without even noticing. I tried to remember my thirty-ninth birthday, or my thirty-eighth. Nothing came to mind."

Those last few lines make my skin crawl. I used to spend a lot of time in diners and those pauses are familiar.

The Central Park Rambles is where Jack finds his "variety." Or, at least, he describes it that way. Checking in on the plants and shrubs on his route, he feels a sense of protection and being protected. Though he seems irritated to be interrupted by the public sex that goes on there, Erens gives us just that hint of envy in his tone, in his quick shift to listing plants.

There is another half of the story, set in a Buddhist monastery in Vermont. There are plants there too, and order, of course.

From page one, something is building. When Jack breaks under that pressure, he breaks in a big way. It is perfect.

Tin House is reissuing this book this year. Check it out on a cold day.

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