WILL ROSS is 66 years old, newly retired after a long
career as an accountant for the telephone company in Boston. He lives now in a coastal village in Maine, in the cozy house overlooking the sea to which he and his wife of four decades, Helen, for years had planned to move upon retirement. But plans can go awry: five months ago Helen died after a stroke. Bereft and bewildered, convinced that life is "all pointless" without his beloved companion, Will drifts aimlessly through his days, short of energy and long on self-pity: "I'm old, see. And all alone. Take a good look: this could happen to you. Chances are, it will."
From this bleak situation A.G. Mojtabai has fashioned a remarkable novel: brief, luminous, intense, unexpectedly humorous. Without a trace of sentimentality, employing no false epiphanies, she moves Will from a state of despair to an acceptance, even if a limited one, of his lot. With admirable restraint, she leaves him at the end suspended between the earth he is not ready to depart and the heaven that is his ultimate destination; when she brings a teenaged boy into his little world, it is not to set up a facile reconciliation between Youth and Age, but to allow Will to recapture, if only for a moment, his lost sense of wonder. Autumn is a novel of rare subtlety and psychological depth.
It is also an exceptional depiction of old age, a subject only rarely touched upon in American fiction. Though the novel contains only a few events -- a visit to the doctor, an encounter with a lonely widow, a tense telephone conversation with Will's grown son, a storm, the discovery of the teenaged boy in Will's son's old treehouse -- it ranges across a wide variety of experiences and emotions that old people encounter. At the doctor's, for example, Will complains of vague feelings of sickness, but there is no evidence of physiological disorder. The doctor tells Will, "You ought to be mixing more, mixing with people like yourself" -- which Will immediately understands means "mixing with my own kind" -- and presses on him a leaflet promoting the Bangor Golden Age Club. Later, over lunch:
"Nothing better to do, so I turn over the Golden Age brochure. It's better than staring at the wall. They've got something they call Leisure Clubs, I see. I hate that word -- leisure. 'Our days are full our hands unfolded rich memories new friends new jobs fine crafts new skills . . .' Trivets, they mean. 'As Senior Citizens . . .' I must've left the newspaper on the bus; this will teach me a lesson. 'As Senior Citizens . . . ' I read that already. 'Life really begins at seventy.' Seventy -- I could tell! -- they're older than me. We are still in 'the Stream of Life.' They're older. 'Above all, we must be cheerful.' They're older than me. 'Our hard work was not in vain.' Me, I'm just in the teens of old age, if there is such a thing. 'We are reaping -- ' "
That marvelous passage, like so much else in this novel, manages to capture the patronizing rhetoric with which we attempt to pacify the "elderly" on the one hand and, on the other, Will's fierce, proud rejection of it. He is a man of limited education and horizons, but he is plenty smart enough to understand that society is trying to shunt him off in a corner. In the world of the young, Will is old:
"They go by so fast. Young and in a rush, always. How they bump and crowd us! They aren't going anywhere but where we've gone already, but they're in this tearing hurry to get there. Right now, I can watch them fairly calmly, but a time will come . . . Come a time when I'll avoid the hours they're out of school; when I see them coming down the street, I'll veer away. The way they walk, they own the earth. Well, they do, but no need to swagger so! Passing them in the street, even now, feels like a collision sometimes -- too many near-misses to be by accident. I know what they're up to. We're slow, we're clumsy, we clog the way. They're out to break our bones." What the young fail to understand, indeed what interests them not at all, is that life continues to percolate in these men and women whom they dismiss as tired and depleted. There could be no more vivid or humorous demonstration of that than Will's brief liaison with Lil Harmon, a chatty, energetic widow who is out to seduce him and wastes no time getting on with it. Though the spirit proves more willing than the flesh, Mojtabai's point is that it is precisely the spirit that matters. She understands that "the old blood still churns," resisting each of Will's efforts to drift into permanent desuetude.
Autumn is a modest, quiet book. The points it makes about old age are not especially original and not especially dazzling -- and almost never made in our youth-obsessed culture, which alone would be reason enough to take the book seriously, except that there is so much more to it. A.G. Mojtabai does not merely sympathize with old age; she grants it the far more valuable gifts of dignity, respect and understanding. Autumn is a small work of art.