"I may as well begin in September 1935." The voice belongs to Felix "Lefty" Murray, Julian Moynahan's marvelous new character, a middle-aged Irish-American Bostonian, whose remembrance of things past begins during the Depression and culminates in the summer just before the outbreak of World War II. The opening line of "Where the Land and Water Meet" has echoes, of course. Not quite "Call Me Ishmael," perhaps, or even Philip Roth's parodic "Call Me Smitty." No, if anything it is Salinger's "If you really want to hear about it" - the opening line "The Catcher in the Rye" - that one thinks of. For in some ways, Moynahan's 16-year-old Felix Murray is much like Holden Caulfield: innocent and confused by it all - by sex, people, life in general. Like Holden, Lefty is bewildered by the way of the world, yet must learn how to live in it nevertheless.
But whatever the echoes, the novel is very much Moynahan's own.
In Lefty Murray he has given us a fine creation - a character who may understand that "there was no message out there to be gleaned, either from beneath or above the stars," that truth is "always a big disappointment," but who refuses to be like his brother who feels "outrage that people could behave so trivially when there was so much sorrow available to wallow in."
Lefty doesn't wallow. He wants to know, to be sure. His "ignorant and secure world" had died when he was a child, and like us he probably waits for the big, dramatic event to make it all clear. But he has come to understand that one thing happens, and another, and then something else happens; it's only that we were looking away and missed it all. It is the absence of the extraordinary that defines us, and this is the subject of Moynahan's book. "A life or death goes by so fast," Lefty tells us. "Shave and haircut full stop." It happens, and then there is only memory. But memory, Lefty wryly warns us, "is often out to lunch."
Unlike so many characters in American literature, Moynahan's hero doesn't suffer from weltschmerz; he is neither distressed nor inarticulate. He is too filled with wonder, with the meaning of it all, to give in to the disappointment of Truth. There is too much wit and intelligence, too much curiosity about that point where the land and water meet. So, for example, shortly after his father dies, he begins to listen to a recording of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, the "Pathetique," and finds it to be just a piece of "unembroidered gloom."
To Peter Ilich, Lefty tells us, he wanted to say:
So things are tough for you, Mr. Tchaikovsky, well things are tough all over. Many millions of people are out of work, the Nazis have overrun the Balkans and Crete and are beating the - out of the Russkis, and my father just died. Why don't you count your blessings? You're a genius, you've got a rich widow fussing over you, lots of people play and listen to your music long after you're dead. Why don't you quit whining? In fact, why don't you shut up right now?
That's the essence of Felix "Lefty" Murray's life - of the memories he shares with us. Nothing much happens, I suppose, certainly nothing of any great dramatic impact. Lefty's father leaves his family during the Depression and his mother teaches her children to be "original and self-reliant." (She is a strong woman, proud and unbending, whose children never understand what she had to contend with, and only later does Lefty realize that "for much of the time all that stood between us and the city dump was her pride.")
Lefty works at odd jobs, meets Ace Farrelly, who becomes his close friend and with whom he debates the merits of Mozart's G Minor Symphony. In the summer of 1941 he works at a sea resort, where he has little thought of the impending war, has little success with women, and is cheated out of the correct bonus due him. Little else occurs: Lefty's father dies an alcoholic and many years later his mother dies in a car accident on a Memorial Day weekend. Nothing special; nothing really remarkable. This happens and that happens; it all goes by so fast. Memory captures some of it, but so much is lost.
If in the end we come to see Lefty as he sees himself - as "a fairly anxious person, expecting the worst, often coming stark awake at night, the prey of indefinable dreads" - we know that despite the dread it will be all right, for as Lefty tells us early in the novel, "If that day I hadn't come out ahead, or even come out even, I had come out almost even. You could live with that."