- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006


By Andrew Holleran

Hyperion, $19.95, 150 pages


Grief-stricken after the death of his mother, a lonely professor comes to Washington, D.C., where a friend has fixed him up with a job as a sabbatical replacement. He has also found him a room in “one of those row houses people walk by on fall nights and stop beside to look at the architectural details.”

The landlord is away when he arrives, so he wanders the house, feeling like a ghost. “The house was a tomb that first weekend. The more I looked the emptier it seemed, and when I caught my reflection accidentally in the enormous mirror leaning against the wall of the living room it brought me to a halt — the pale silvery figure staring back at me looked so tentative and sad.”

The melancholy wandering continues throughout the next weeks as he takes long walks through the streets and avenues of the city, acknowledging its grandeur, but haunted by the loss recorded in statues and street names commemorating the dead.

His reading is equally evocative and mournful. Beside his bed he finds a copy of Mary Todd Lincoln’s letters. They begin when she was happy, her husband still alive; they end when she is old and in pain: eighteen years a widow, advertising her refusal to act as if she had a home on earth by wandering from city to city, dressed always in the most elaborate of widow’s weeds. “For sorrow such as ours,” she wrote, “There is no balm, the grave and Heaven with reunion with our loved ones, can alone heal, bleeding broken hearts.”

The unnamed professor who narrates this poignant and somber novella agrees with her. But while he knows that grief is permanent, for him at least, it is also a blessing because it is what survives after a loved one dies. “It’s the only thing left of that person. Your love for, your missing, them. As long as you have that, you are not alone — you have them,” he explains to his friend Frank, whose mother has also died. But Frank argues the value of “moving on.” As a cancer survivor, he wants to get as much out of life as possible.

It’s a rational, tenable view, but as Mr. Holleran follows his character’s exploration of grief, artfully weaving his record of his thoughts with his reading of Mary Todd Lincoln, it becomes clear that it is not useful, nor even helpful, because it denies the reality of loss.

The painful value of grief, as Mary Todd Lincoln and the bereaved man realize, is that being alone is not the opposite of being loved: of having someone to whom you belong and who belongs to you. Rather, it is its necessary adjunct: “the only thing left” after the beloved dies. Grief keeps the beloved with you, so you are not alone.

The professor explores both the ramifications and the stern sustenance in this thought in various encounters and conversations. A walk past Henry Adams’ house reminds him that Adams’ wife Clover committed suicide, condemning him to 30 years of mourning.

A visit to the elderly mother of a dead friend lets him argue his case for guilt as a constituent of grief, in that we can no longer apologize or make it up to those we have failed or harmed. Conversations with his landlord affirm his sense that grief is a permanent state, possibly relieved occasionally, but never lost.

All this philosophical analysis of what grief means would be dry as dust were it not for Mr. Holleran’s narrative and literary skills. Though “Grief” is based on ideas rather than actions, it has restrained energy of a well-tuned motor: a narrative drive achieved by attentive focus on the direction of the tale and the astute shifting of gears as other experiences and opinions come into view.

Most impressively, Mr. Holleran picks details that pinpoint the almost sepulchral quality of much of Washington: its grandeur, its long streets and avenues, even its flowery spring. In his hands the city itself is emblematic of grief: its blossom as evanescent as a funeral wreath, its monuments reminders of the dead, its great hopes never quite realized.

Thus Washington is as integral to the theme of “Grief” as the central character’s state of mind because, like all capitals, it is a backward-looking guardian of its nation’s history. This is not a tale that could have just as easily been set in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago or some provincial city.

Mr. Holleran also shows history at work through his portrayal of middle-aged gays. They lived through the vibrant seventies and into the doomed eighties, when AIDS began its silent but soon-to-be-deadly raids on life. Inevitably, those who survived to the nineties and beyond live with loss. Like Washington, they, too, are emblematic of history as the shaping force in life.

But if history bereaves us all, paradoxically grief is a refusal to accept the swaths it scythes through life. In following his lonely path to Washington and back again to the Florida home he had once shared with his parents, the nameless character becomes a hero defined by the burden he shoulders and the hard truth he illuminates.

Mr. Holleran’s intellectual and esthetic poise make this an extraordinarily fine work of fiction — one that will live long in the mind because it provides so much to ponder. Paradoxically, its sad insights invigorate because they have the unmistakable ring of truth.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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