Martha is the widow of Jonathan Ascher, a novelist and cultural hero of the 1960s, and the mother of a dead son, Mickey, a casualty of Vietnam. Martha has been alone for 30 years after the deaths of her son and then her husband, and when an offer comes from a Midwest professor to write a book about her husband, she is forced to confront him again as the custodian of his academic estate. Through reading Jonathan’s journals, Martha has to confront the reality that Jonathan was sleeping with men.
Martha and Jonathan meld together to tell the full story of their lives and the child that they raised. Mickey, though never given his own narrative, still speaks through the page as a precocious child who slowly fades into a silent and withdrawn young man as he is confronted with the reality of the world around him. His reaction to finding out that mommy and daddy might not be the perfect, loyal couple or that mommy might not be the only one to like dick are realistically shown through the eyes of his parents as a withdraw from them. It is only by trudging through Jonathan’s journals that Martha can put together the whole story of all three of their lives and finally gain the closure she seems to have been unknowingly longing for.
Merlis’ book is a study in voices—each character obvious through the way they speak and not just the changes in typeface. Jonathan’s journals give insight into a man who is deeply conflicted on multiple issues. He despises “fairies,” yet he seeks out men in tearooms and bathhouses and bars. He claims to be an anarchist who despises traditional societal roles, yet he finds himself putting his own son through them. The conflict is laid bare in the style of a journal that he is writing for himself, even though he either knows or hopes that someone else will read them.
And Martha punctuates his recollections 30 years later by filling in the other half of what is happening. Her reactions are either resigned, disgusted, or enraged as she recalls life from the other side of the marriage. She has to face the silent weights that she has been carrying around regarding her husband in order to see the man that he was.
An insightful and authentic novel, JD presents a small cast of characters in a world that feels eerily familiar in an uncertain way. A pre-Stonewall, gay father trying to understand himself in terms of a world that he rejects, and his family struggling to discover how to love each other.
Available from Terrace Books (uwpress.wisc.edu).