Jill McCorkle has been concentrating on short stories for a long time, and that form leaves a strong imprint on “Life After Life,” her first novel in 17 years. The early chapters read like a collection of stories as they rotate through the lives of people connected to the Pine Haven retirement center. It’s a cheery, one-stop institution that offers independent living with an eye to the undiscovered country: nursing care, hospice and, finally, a graveyard next door. Only later, as these tales accumulate, do we see them coalesce around a tightly connected drama of friendship, betrayal and heartache.
McCorkle grew up in a small North Carolina town and has spent her life tempting us with stereotypes and then exploding them. That practice makes her a particularly engaging guide through the halls of Pine Haven, where few of the residents shuffle along the way we might expect. For those of us hoping to grow old(er), it’s a nice reminder that the twilight years can be just as fraught and surprising as our salad days. If parts of the novel read like a needlepoint sampler, other parts read like needlepoint graffiti.
There’s real suffering here — illness, humiliation, despair unto death — but also a fierce species of joy. “No one,” the narrator notes, “likes to talk about the positive parts of getting older and aging into orphanhood.” But the people of Pine Haven find solace in all kinds of unexpected places as they refuse to go gentle into that good night. “The heart,” one resident observes, “is a tough old organ.”
Although these elderly people live alone in their own rooms, McCorkle focuses on how they interact with each other and the world. Marge Walker, for instance, maintains a “murder and crime scrapbook” and keeps her heart pumping on gossip. Eighty-year-old Rachel Silverman checked herself in after burying her dull husband up in Massachusetts. She chose Pine Haven to live near the site of an affair that once gave her life meaning, but now she can’t quite believe that she’s stuck among all these yahoos in the “home of lard, Jesus, sugared-up tea.” Meanwhile, Toby Tyler lives in a fit of good cheer, not quite in or out of the closet.
The day of reckoning may be near, but all of these characters are still flirting with illusions, a theme McCorkle mines for both comedy and tragedy. Stanley Stone pretends to be suffering from dementia so that his dutiful son will finally give up on him and go live his own life. The cost of that ridiculous plan far outweighs its benefits, but Stanley finds there’s something freeing about being released from the constraints of proper behavior. And Sadie Randolph, 85, a retired third-grade teacher, maintains a steady business by creating “new memories” for her fellow residents at Pine Haven. Using her Polaroid camera and scissors, she places people where they wish they’d been: “She put the woman who got all her hair cut off (before it all got cut off) out on the grandstrand on a beautiful sunny day pictured in Southern Living. She used her Sharpies to turn the wheelchair into a beautiful red beach chair and then added a little yellow sand pail as if the woman might get up and go hunt for shells any minute.”
That sweet quirkiness could grow as cloying as the lemon-scented air of the Community Room, but for a while, McCorkle adds enough pathos to keep these moments fresh. She also escapes the claustrophobic setting by drawing us out into the lives of people who pass through Pine Haven as friends, volunteers and employees.
Unfortunately, though, some of these characters are designed to dispense Wisdom and Inspirational Truths in doses that would be more effective if more attenuated. In college, the woman I eventually married warned me that not all our deep revelations should be shared, and I couldn’t help thinking that each time I read a line like, “The longest and most expensive journey you will ever make is the one to yourself.” Hurry, Grim Reaper.
Other characters muddy the novel’s early magic with histrionics. Abby, the 12-year-old girl who lives next to the retirement home, enjoys some tender interactions with the elderly residents, but soon she’s covered with cobwebs of sentimentality. An overwrought plot involving her beloved dog with the cringe-inducing name Dollbaby paws through the whole novel. And worse — much worse — Abby’s mother is a cartoon villain of monstrous envy and bitterness, a character who seems to have no other purpose than to make us feel morally superior. She announces her every wicked thought and deed with an ear-splitting bugle call. The lack of subtlety here, the complete absence of psychological depth, is inexplicable from a writer of McCorkle’s skill and generosity. And when the final pages suddenly collapse in an avalanche of melodrama, it’s hard not to conclude that the novel simply got away from her.
Far better are the brief excerpts from the journal of one of the volunteers at Pine Haven who comforts the dying. In these pages, some just a paragraph long, we see the final moments of various residents: what they looked like, who was with them and what they said when “the King be witnessed in the Room.” These passages are unabashedly sweet, but pure and lovely, sometimes achingly intimate. And each of them is followed by an even more concentrated passage that’s slightly magical: just a snippet or sensory impression from the dearly departed’s life that conveys some essential insight.
But overall, what a messy quilt this novel is, with its awkwardly stitched patches of profundity and comedy, bathos and melodrama. There’s just enough here to recommend it, but don’t feel guilty if you drift away about halfway through. As the residents of Pine Haven know, life is short, and there are lots of good books out there.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
LIFE AFTER LIFE
By Jill McCorkle
Algonquin. 344 pp. $24.95