‘She asked me what my stories were about. I said love and death, which is what I always say, because what else can you say?’
This is the best novel about love and death. It probably has a serious claim to be the greatest American novel. The setting is not exactly grandiose. The action takes place in trailer-park Massachusetts, drenched in mid-nineties Americana poverty. ‘Albert entertained us with stories from the Worcestor Housing Court, where he worked as a clerk. Tenants raising livestock in their kitchen, landlords dousing back porches with gasoline, and so on.’ Local businesses include Aris’s, The Blue Plate, Pier 1, Iago’s Pizza and Pasta, Todd’s Medical Supply, Jerry’s Hardware, Mr. Natural’s (a health lifestyle shop, maybe a Robert Crumb nod?) Tatnuck Booksellers, and Get Nailed (a manicure place). It feels like the Cheshire of America; surrounding areas include Lowell, P-Town, even a tourist spot called Purgatory Chasm.
At thirty-six Lafayette Proulx is a failed novelist, with a ‘cavalier attitude to security, employment, success’ who has just walked out on his marriage and career and taken up with Judi Dubey, a therapist he meets in a singles bar called ‘The Lek’. Lafayette claims to be ‘the sanest person Judi had ever been with.’ Her family lives in a ‘Quonset hut out in Millbury by the Blackstone Valley Rod & Gun Club.’ Her brother hung herself at fourteen ‘because, his note said, the house was so dark, the rain so loud’, her father is a schizophrenic, her sister is an ER nurse addicted to prescription drugs who has two criminal boyfriends fighting over her, a battle that eventually turns murderous when one hangs the other and bleeds him dry on a hook at a meatpacking plant. On the way home from Judi’s thirtieth, her cousin’s boyfriend shoots and kills an old woman apparently on impulse. Her cousin, Layla, finds a new lover, who claims to be the sun – literally the sun: doing introductions, she warns that ‘we shouldn’t look directly into Pozzo’s eyes.’ (Later, we get one of the novel’s many classic chapter openings: ‘Pozzo Beckett, the sun, drilled a hole in his head in order to open his third eye. The process, as you might imagine, was an arduous one.’)
Throughout, Lafayette’s narrative tone is like his behaviour, affectionate and casual. He comes across like a handsome stoner uncle, and writes of his ex-wife with admiration and love, but between the lines, in snatches and comments, and the shake of his hands when he reads rejection letters, you get a sense of the base Lafayette, angry and chafing. ‘How many times had Martha sobbed and locked herself in the bedroom when I had too much to drink?’ Lafayette wonders, and later: ‘We always used to fight at public occasions.’ His father is dying, but Lafayette shows no interest until the eleventh hour, and keeps his conscience covered: ‘Martha went on. I didn’t recognise the guy she was talking about.’ Right up until the end, and with enough of her own to deal with, Judi is trying to sort out his problems: ‘You use your impatience to keep you from the anger. You’re afraid of it. You’re afraid it’s so huge and powerful that it will hurt someone. Well, it’s not.’
Despite the chaos she was thrown into at birth, Judi has become a well-adjusted, successful businesswoman. Her one quirk is past lives, and the book is tenebrous with fantasies and delusions: reincarnation, religion, aliens, conspiracies, psychics, miracles. Judi’s dad hands out business cards declaring himself to be ‘Charmed Quarkmaster Plenipotentiary and Fountainhead of Atoms’. A Dubey murder trial collapses when jurors claim to have spoken to the victim during a séance. Lafayette has a pulling rival in a conspiracy theorist, who believes that various national and international agencies are after him, and who is later ‘arrested at Elm Park at three in the morning with two sixteen-year-old girls, a hypodermic syringe, and a bag of heroin.’ Lafayette’s ex works for the Catholic Church, and Lafayette himself is a lapsed Catholic. He is an ‘impoverished materialist self’ surrounded by hustling preachers, contemporary shaman, twenty-first century mystics, signs and siguls and myths and revelations. (There are also a lot of dreams – both Lafayette and Judi dream vividly, and the novel ends in a dream.) His scepticism is shared by the author but there’s no sense of mockery, no false wackiness. John Dufresne loves his crazy monsters, and is prepared to listen to them.
The book also features the irritations and frivolities of writing culture through which Dufresne must also have struggled. Pretentious rejection letters from fifth-rate magazines, the silliness of public readings and discussions (to the consensus that ‘poetry needed to be more accessible’ a friend of Lafayette’s suggests that ‘In fact, we could just make endearing noises’). Dufresne has his fun with all this, but there’s a serious point here. Writing is the one thing Lafayette gets right, because he has that essential spark of curiosity. ‘In a high school algebra class, Brother Doherty once told me that what I didn’t know would make a good book. I always hated that son of a bitch, but I’ve let his wisdom guide me ever since.’ He has that vital urge – the urge to follow you home.
Lafayette can’t walk down the street without looking at people and imagining the stories of their lives. He clocks a woman in an airport: ‘Art school graduate, maybe. Vegetarian. Dreams of living in Santa Fe.’ On a trip with Judi, he reads the graffiti on Purgatory Chasm wall: ‘I wondered were they married and did they live nearby, like in Douglas, and did they drive over here and look up at Leo’s declaration? Or maybe Joyce married someone else and it didn’t work out, but she’ll come here sometimes, look up, and find solace and also regret.’ He then reflects on ‘the impulse to leave your name in public places, to say I was here, I was alive.’ You could see fiction itself as grandiose graffiti, humans scrabbling for immortality – in The Information, Martin Amis says that writing is not about living, writing is about not dying. And there is an element of that, but writing is also about living all the lives you never lived – new lives to dream yourself into. Lafayette is criticised by an editor for being a Yankee, and writing about the Deep South. ‘I admitted I was not born in Louisiana, but asked if Bradbury were born on Mars? Conrad in England? Shakespeare in Verona?… there is a geography of the imagination, there are many worlds we live in’.
Lafayette and Judi get together out of boredom, desire and curiosity. During the early stages of their relationship both are on the hunt for other lovers. If Lafayette feels anything it’s for his wife, for what he felt for his wife, he’s at the wake of the death of his love. But we are all on the edge and even before Judi’s diagnosis of ovarian cancer, death is on the fringes and peripheries. There are murders, portents, car accidents. At one point Lafayette lists all the people he grew up who died before their time: ‘my cousin Andy Proulx overdosed on heroin; Karen Harper had breast cancer; Frank Bauer was shot while hitchhiking in Oregon; Margie Greenwood, whom I was crazy about when we were fourteen, though she never knew it, fell or was pushed out of her fifteenth-floor dorm room at BU.’ Death is random, and things can get serious at any time – as Sam Harris says, you might not even live until the end of this paragraph.
For her it’s the realisation that although she’s not in love with Lafayette, he’s the one she’ll die with. ‘I don’t want you to be alone.’ ‘Well, there’s nothing you can do about that. I am alone.’ As Judi goes through chemo and chemo reaction, the puking, hair loss and twenty-hour crashouts, Lafayette searches the house for fridge photographs, high school yearbooks, jewellery boxes, and old black books, fascinated by what he doesn’t know about her, and all the lives she ever lived: ‘There was one surprise in her address book, an entry for Kris Kristofferson, with a phone number… I wondered if she was one of the girls standing on top of a tan Chevrolet.’ Dufresne respects clutter. He knows it’s the archaeology of a life.
Mortality places Judi’s esoteric beliefs in a new light. She gives up chemo and gets into alt-cancer therapies: ‘Yin foods for yang cancers. Colonic irrigations. Hypnosis. Twenty pounds of organic fruit every day. Clay packs. Laetrile. Massive doses of flaxseed oil and selenium.’ (Dufresne shares Amis’s gift for comic lists.) On a moral tightrope and trying to do the decent thing, Lafayette realises that ‘the brain is not so reasonable after all. It wants to live forever. Every time we say a prayer, put our finger on the planchette of the Ouija board, chant our mantra, the brain rewards us with the release of soothing endorphins. Just enough to make us want more.’ Lafayette has the gift of imaginative empathy and gives Judi a fair hearing, but he remains a materialist to the end. ‘Our being here is a fortunate accident of chemistry, I think, one we’ve exploited as much as we can, and one unlikely to recur.’ And he also notes, after witnessing Judi’s death, that belief in a loving paradise does not ease the pain and fear of dying: ‘even if death is a passage to another life, a better life, we have such a difficult time in the letting go, life being the devil we know.’
The chapters are short, full of sparkle and insight, and Dufresne has possibly the best chapter titles of any writer. They can be as surreal and whimiscal as REM lyrics (‘She’s Married – She’s Happy – She Drives A Mercury!’ ‘For I Have Already Been a Boy and a Girl, a Bush and a Bird and a Leaping Journeying Fish’) or thoughtful (‘Difficulty Worth Living With’, ‘I Looked Up and Saw the Two of Us Reflected in the Mirror on Judi’s Bedroom Ceiling’) and increasingly portentous (‘The Harvest Is Past, the Summer Is Ended, And We Are Not Saved’). Dufresne gives the title ‘The Honey of Poison-Flowers’ to symbolise the love that grows between Lafayette and Judi, which would not have developed without the disease that shackles them together. They stay up all night talking ‘like we were teenagers who’d just discovered that love was redeeming, war was bad, capitalism preyed on the poor.’ At dawn, Lafayette realises that they have spoken ‘for three hours without a breath, but we hadn’t talked about cancer or chemo or pain or dying’. If this is love, Lafayette thinks, it’s ‘accidental. It wasn’t romance, and it wasn’t ecstasy.’
Dufresne writes about passionate love as well as Keats or Byron. There are whole rolling paragraph paeans to romance and desire: ‘Love at first sight elevates romance above the level of accident,’ he writes, ‘the accident of geography or economics or occupation.’ But Lafayette is told time and again, by his ex and his mistress and even his fictional characters, that love is also behaviour, and we choose it to some extent. Even when she’s gone, he talks to Judi, imagines what they would be doing if she was still alive, for we godless also speak with the dead. Love is change, Judi says, and routine is death to love. There’s no life without death, no life without change, and love is not just something you are, it’s something you do.