Monday, July 13, 2009

Economic Depression, Assisted Suicide and Despair: A Fun Summer Read

The paradox of Buffalo winters is that they actually drive people outside, despite frostbite-inducing temperatures. If you're a suburban homeowner (or sometimes even an urban one), you have NO FUCKING CHOICE but to drag yourself out there and snowblow or shovel your driveway. If you're a city-dweller, you may be outside just because that's where you generally are anyway: walking home from the bus or the Metro, running errands too close together to keep moving your car, what-have-you. The faces of these people are utterly locked down, betraying no other emotion than determination to survive until they can get inside. That's where Greg Ames gets the title of his novel, Buffalo Lockjaw.

If you're from Buffalo, about half of your friends have moved away. Maybe you yourself have moved away. At any rate, Thanksgiving is the one time of year when you can generally count on seeing everybody. Christmas is always laden with family obligations, including the cooking and shopping. Despite the best attempts of marketing gurus everywhere, Easter never really caught on as a secular holiday, too. Memorial Day, Labor Day, the 4th of July are all big going-away holidays. And New Year's Eve is generally only celebrated in bars. But Thanksgiving is the holiday of reunions, and on this particular one, protagonist James Fitzroy confronts his life.

James lives in New York and has a stable but much-maligned job writing greeting cards. He's 28 and single. He's home in Buffalo visiting his mother, who is committed to a nursing home as a victim of early-onset Alzheimer's and unable to do the simplest tasks for herself at the young age of 56; his father, who's selling the family home to move into an apartment alone; and his older sister, who lives in Portland, OR, and has always outshone him.

But, this being Thanksgiving, he also visits the people and places of his youth. He drives around town listening to his "Buffalo ethnography" that he worked on in his early 20s. He stops by the improbable outdoor barbecue at his friend Brickteeth's (also present: his friend Mattress Lips). He gets threatened by some wannabe thugs he grew up with ("You stay away from Corrinne! She doesn't want to see you!") and the entire time, is steeling his nerve to do what he believes to be the right thing and put his mother out of her misery.

If you like books with a strong sense of place, you might enjoy this one. Ames stacks local references sky-high so that they nearly topple. I wonder if that would bother other people, if they want to scream "WE GET IT!!" after watching James ease his car out of the Wilson Farms lot on Elmwood and Allen down to Jim's Steak-Out. The story would not have been weaker for losing a few of those references, although I admit it thrilled me when I realized that one part of the action happened only feet from my house. The great Buffalo flavor comes from the excerpts of Jim's ethnography project. One man told him about all of his rituals surrounding the Buffalo Bills games in the early 90s -- his lucky shirt and underwear, the precise moment at which he'd eat a hot dog with mustard, the number of high-fives after every touchdown and field goal that all contributed materially to the success of the team. The guy sounded like the father of everyone I grew up with. Many "subjects" also noted the influence of the psychiatric hospital on the street life in the city.

But there's also the main plot to content with, a plotline that's almost violent in its sadness. My own grandmother died of dementia, and it's a horrible thing to watch. James is haunted by the fact that early on in the progress of his mother's disease, she mentioned the notion of suicide to him and he talked her out of it. His mother was an expert nurse who had written one of the definitive nursing textbooks, and was an outspoken advocate of a patient's right to die. So James knows her stance. He knows, in his heart, what's right. It's just a matter of doing it.

There's also the matter of James' own future. His boozy, shattered romantic past returns bit by bit throughout the course of the novel, as does his issues surrounding his family and his place within it. Refreshingly, James does not seem to have many issues surrounding his greeting-card job. It's everyone else in the book that finds it a ridiculous way to make a living, but James seems to be essentially satisfied with it.

This was definitely an excellent book that really made an impact on me, and probably will for a while to come. If you're looking for a cheerful summer read, this is most emphatically not the book for you, however. But it's very well-done and certainly destined to be at least a local classic.

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