Men Alone: Two Debut Novellas

Back from holidays now, I’ve just finished reading two exceptional novellas — The Old Whitaker Place by David Chambers and Mitko by Garth Greenwell. The two books complement and mirror each other. Both are debut works, the first by a retired man, the second by a youth. Both are characterized by exceptionally strong and distinctive voices, both are told in the first person, and both deal with solitude and loneliness from two very different perspectives. The Old Whitaker Place is narrated by eighty-two year-old Tom Whitaker, a man wedded to the Vermont  home built by his great-grandfather after the Civil War. He’s a stubborn, somewhat cormudgeonly fellow who has trouble accepting help from his son Ben who lives in Connecticut, drives up on weekends, and hopes to place his father in an assisted-living residence. Old Tom broke up with his wife years ago, and is happiest when he’s alone. The story traces his struggles to remain independent and to deal with his begrudging affection for Teresa, a gutsy woman thirty years his junior who helps him remain in his house. The pleasures of this story include Tom’s crotchety yet reflective voice and David Chambers’ eye for the telling details of character. We learn a lot about old Tom’s frame of reference when he says that his son Ben has “decided to become homosexual,” and when he later frets over his “willfull decision to be strange and girl-like.” He assumes that his gay son picked up his preference from his mother’s side of the family, but when Ben’s partner Morris leaves him because he’s too fussy and difficult, the reader doesn’t need to be told how Ben got that way.

The author is equally adept in summarizing Tom’s and Teresa’s relationship. Tom tells her she’s no ordinary person and he reaches for her hand. Teresa sees it coming and pats it. There are many more such pointed observations in this work. Compression is one of the virtues of a good novella, and in this small book, David Chambers manages to suggest the sweep of a life in all its dignity and imperfection.

Another strength of the novella form is its ability to tell a potent, disturbing story that would lose its intensity in a longer form. Mitko by Garth Greenwell is a fine example of an author working within a tight structure and a formal, cultivated voice in order to frame and compress his powerful material. The narrator of the story, a young teacher newly arrived in Bulgaria, falls in love with Mitko, a young hustler who he pays for sex. They have a few encounters, including one in the narrator’s apartment, and one at a resort hotel where the relationship ends. We learn — again, through telling details — that each manipulates the other and that the teacher is relatively prosperous while Mitko is impoverished, alcoholic and ill. Loneliness, unfulfilled longing and the unbridgeable gap of privilege and poverty permeate this slight work. What keeps us reading is the author’s remarkable voice — refined and distant, its tone reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice but also reflective and cerebral to the point of excluding real intimacy.

Yet the novella’s finest achievement is its structure and the moment of innocence which Greenwell places at its centre. After his first encounters with Mitko, the narrator picks up the story two months after their last meeting. At this point, he’s on a weekend away with his students. Alone in an idyllic mountain town, he ends up at a cafe by the river, where he witnesses a playful little girl leaning over the water’s edge, held secure by her father’s arm as she turns to embrace him.  “With her father’s body folded around her,” writes Greenwell, “she laughed with a kind of joy it was difficult for me to recognize, so certain it seemed of a home among the things of the world.” There’s a radiance to his beautiful description of an innocent embrace, one in dramatic contrast to the paid-for sex in the story. As the narrator backtracks, describing his last encounter with Mitko, his retrospective use of the image of the child allows the reader a poignant reflection on the hopeless situation of the two men. This is an intelligent and thoughtful placement of imagery as a lens through which to view the complexity of relationships, both innocent and impossible.

These two fine novellas are both published by Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio.

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