KATE QUINTON'S DAYS is the ultimate biography of a nobody. Kate Quinton could be anyone, and that, of course, includes any one of us. Susan Sheehan, who is on the staff of The New Yorker, is somebody special -- an obviously compassionate writer, resignedly at war with bureaucracy. Her portrait, A Welfare Mother, appeared in 1976. Her report, Is There No Place on Earth For Me?, on the hard times of a schizophrenic she calls "Sylvia Frumkin," won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction last year. Now, Kate Quinton's Days narrates the daily struggles of an 81- year-old invalid in Brooklyn who moves in and out of hospitals and wheelchairs and walkers, changes apartments and home attendants and doctors. Mrs. Quinton is tended by her frail daughter, Claire, whose problems we hear about also.
If "Sylvia Frumkin" animated Is There No Place on Earth For Me? with her bizarre antics and crazed poet's ear for language, "Kate Quinton" does a less raucous job in this new book, her meekness and game spirit softening a wearying demise. On February 24, 1982 (says paragraph one), Kate Quinton's "throat was sore and her feet were frozen." And on February 24, 1983 (says the book's final paragraph), "her weak legs ached, but she said she was determined to regain the use of them."
In between the frozen feet and the weak aching legs is a meticulous account of a year's ordeal. Kate Quinton engages in the bureaucratic struggle to qualify for publicly funded home care, and avoids being sent to a nursing home. Most of the attendants who arrive at her apartment can't clean and don't care, and aren't up to tending to this strong-willed client. Some health care bureaucrats harry Mrs. Quinton and want to cut back on the hours of paid-for help. Those who defend her become our heroes. She qualifies for Medicaid after much checking of documents, and gets a prescription for molded shoes so she can walk a bit. Her case shifts from one administrative organization to another.
Mrs. Quinton and Claire visit Claire's sister, Barbara, in Teaneck, and go to a wedding. Claire feuds with her sister -- that's a minor theme of the book. Claire gives, but Mrs. Quinton loves Barbara more. The chronicle pauses for biographies of Kate (born in Ireland, came here and worked as a maid, married happily) and Claire (was briefly a nun, then a secretary, and had five spinal fusions). We're told all the details and rationales for the selling, a decade ago, of a house in Brooklyn, for a move to Teaneck, then back to Brooklyn, then for a change of apartments ("It was in good shape. The rent was $265 a month. The Quintons moved in on February 1, 1979.").
By the book's end, a cheerful and able home attendant has come on the scene. Claire's sister has written a conciliatory letter. Kate Quinton, still housebound and in pain, feels that things are looking up some.
What fascinates me, finally, about this book are not Kate Quinton's days -- they are dreary days and all too familiar to anyone who has dealt with infirm relatives. It is Susan Sheehan's relentless, and relentlessly constrained, particularity -- her virtual fondling of a thousand details that, together, overwhelmingly communicate Kate Quinton's ordeal. Susan Sheehan tells us the amount of Kate Quinton's hospital phone bill ($82.50), how late the help arrives (an hour and a half), and reports on the changing state of Mrs. Quinton's bedsores ("Once again, her buttocks were raw"). A typical passage may overwhelm readers with numerous sufferings: "Mrs. Quinton's second week at Lutheran was no less difficult than her first. Her arthritis was hurting her. She was having trouble keeping her food down. She didn't want to eat. She felt weaker. Barbara telephoned every day, and paid a daily charge of $3.82 so that her mother could have a small television set next to her bed, but Mrs. Quinton rarely watched TV. Her eyes were bothering her -- she seemed to need new glasses -- and she found most television programs boring . . . "
A scholar and former priest suggested, when I mentioned to him this particularity of description, the Catholic concept of devotion by passiones Christi participare -- by identification with the details of the passion of Christ's suffering. The book does indeed move mystically close to the wounds and troubles of these sufferers. It is a loving account. We develop affection for its heroines -- of a comfortably impersonal sort. And we come to share Susan Sheehan's tacit assumption that this recounting of detail, this virtual adoration of the ordinary end of an ordinary life, is a worthy enterprise for both writer and reader.
Unlike most of the current practitioners of the arts of "literary journalism" (whose works allure readers with smartly turned sentences and clever narrative tactics), Susan Sheehan construes her chore primly. She does not court her audience. She barely dramatizes scenes. She draws life without exploring its emotion, leaving that part up to us. She just names circumstances, prices, dates, lists ailments and medicines. She never writes intensely and never concedes her own presence or feeling.
To the contrary, "She went about her work proficiently and made pleasant conversation," as Susan Sheehan herself states about one home attendant. It is true that a glimpse of a proficiently wielded broom, and a quoted pleasant quip would have breathed the illusion of the attendant's presence into that sentence. And a whisper of grief would have brought forth an author to share our carefully evoked sorrow. But in this book, restraint of description, and not generosity toward readers, sets the mood.
I find this fascinating; writing teachers enjoin students to "show not tell." Yet Susan Sheehan frequently seems to choose telling over showing. It makes sense here. She has defined the exceptional case. She tells all, but keeps the telling about unremitting tedium moderated, the discomfort tastefully unlurid. The method hazes over the action, blurs our vision of this passion of aging, and makes bearable -- and surprisingly engaging -- the act of reading about misery.
Susan Sheehan obviously feels the documentary artist's mission to make Kate Quinton's days inform us of the general plight of the aged. Mission accomplished. Kate Quinton's Days stands out as a work of great integrity and quality, a poignant and soundly constructed documentation of what it really means to be weak and old in New York City. "This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears," Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a century ago, and Susan Sheehan has written a strangely endearing book.