“Life After Life: A Novel”
Author: Jill McCorkle
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Price: $24.95 (Cloth)
Jill McCorkle entered the publishing scene with a great splash. In 1984 Algonquin published her first two novels “July 7th” and “The Cheerleader” simultaneously. It was hoped this would create “buzz” and it did. Since then there have been four story collections and three more novels, but it has been 17 years since the last novel so “Life After Life” is long awaited by her fans.
This is a substantial piece of fiction at 352 pages, and it is a novel, but of a particular kind.
There is a long literary tradition in which a group of people are thrown together, learn about one another and may tell one another their stories, true or fabricated.
Perhaps the model for characters doing this on the move is Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” while the model for a static situation might be Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” in which a group is hiding out from the plague in an Italian country house.
The group in McCorkle’s “Life After Life” is in a more and more common modern setting—the retirement center/nursing home, in this case the Pine Haven Retirement Community, in fictional Fulton, North Carolina, some 60 miles from the Atlantic.
The novelist Walker Percy used to say that the country club was to mid-twentieth century America what the cathedral and cathedral square was to the European middle ages: the gathering place, exercising centripetal force that brought people together for all sorts of reasons—faith, commerce, social conversation, romance. Perhaps in our own time, now that people are living much longer, the retirement community will take over that role, as it gives people who are ending one long chapter of their lives an opportunity to reinvent themselves and, to begin, if they choose, a new, albeit final, chapter.
Inside Pine Haven is a group of more than a dozen characters in various states of mobility. Some are residents, some visitors.
In a wheelchair is Sadie Randolph, a retired grade-school teacher sliding into dementia. She’s a nice old thing. Marge Walker is much less nice.
The widow of a judge, she is a snob, a bigot and a homophobe and is suspicious her family is too eager about their inheritance. As a hobby she keeps a remarkably complete scrapbook of clippings concerning local murder cases.
Toby Tyler, a nickname—she always wanted to run away with the circus—is a retired school teacher of the best kind. She cared about her students and about literature but was burdened for a lifetime, by her now not secret lesbianism.
A novel should have romance, even in a retirement center—perhaps especially in a retirement center—and there is an odd couple here we can root for. Stanley Stone, a local lawyer, put himself in Pine Haven and pretends to be a foul-mouthed, sex-crazed old man, to free his son to get on with his life. His insecure boy would have dedicated every minute to Stanley, if he had remained home.
Rachel Silverman, also an attorney, Jewish from Boston, came to North Carolina for reasons of her own, and now doubts the wisdom of her decision.
Here I am, she says, “in the home of lard, Jesus, sugared-up tea and enough meshugeners to fill Fenway Park.”
Rachel sees through Stanley’s vulgarity masquerade. I have high hopes for this couple.
Much of this novel is comic, but of course not all. C. J. Loomis, the in-house beautician, is a young pierced and tattooed single mother we are rooting for, but she’s in a mess and the odds are against her.
Abby Palmer is 12 and lives nearby. She enjoys visiting with the oldsters partly to get out of the house where her mother is torturing her father to distraction. Kendra Palmer is as thoroughly malicious a fictional wife as I have encountered in a long time.
She needs killing, but this is not that kind of book, exactly.
Helping to hold this book together is the journal of Joanna Lamb, dedicated hospice worker. She observes the dying and writes the stories of their last days. Along the way we learn her story. She is regarded by others as a sad case, but really her life has been an intriguing mix of experiences. Her companionate marriage to a dying gay man, for example, was rich and life-enhancing.
McCorkle also includes a series of pieces which represent the last thoughts of the dying—not narratives from beyond the grave, in heaven, as in “The Lovely Bones” or “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” but a kind of short transcript of the thoughts of the dying during their passage over. This is an interesting device, but I did not find these bits convincing or necessary.
McCorkle’s telling of the complex human machinations of the living are more than enough.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”