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In ‘The Presence of Absence,’ a dying man’s final days are full of life

Simon Van Booy’s novel about a terminally ill man looking back at his life flows with depth and power

5 min

For years I’ve been haunted by a line from a story called “Teddy,” part of J.D. Salinger’s collection “Nine Stories.” In it, a little boy who’s likely a reincarnated holy man describes an epiphany while watching his younger sister drink a glass of milk: in effect, “God pouring God into God.”

Those words wafted back as I read Simon Van Booy’s reverberant new novel, “The Presence of Absence.” On its face a memoiristic reverie jotted by a dying man, it sets in motion a gentle carousel of richly dimensional, comfortingly specific lives — while hinting at a vaster, deeper project.

I read it twice, pinching down page-corners to mark phrases like “ … the drunk librarian of memory, whose random dispatches [lead] into the future where there is often clarity — but also helplessness.”

Soon the book resembled an origami fan.

A brusque prologue, signed by Van Booy as if it were a deposition, frames the book’s occasion: The New Jersey widow of a British author called Max Little has asked Van Booy to corral her late husband’s deathbed notes into a novel. Van Booy states he examined the notes and agreed. Per widow Hadley’s request, all names have been changed. But discerning readers may notice this book’s cover photo — a young woman calmly reading beside what looks like a hospital bed — is credited in tiny print to a Max Little.

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Other mysteries peek out. Facts from Van Booy’s own life, which the author has shared in interviews, are cited as Little’s: childhood in Wales; allusions to a Jamaican mother and a “brown hand like mine.” Delicately yet viscerally, Van Booy has woven elements of his own experience into a more universal composite, a narrating Everyman.

Max begins his journal during what he knows to be his final days. Soon he’ll convey how, grappling with that knowledge, he came to an awareness of “the existence of something beyond self”: that we transmute after death into some other form of life, and that language, however imperfect and messy, can sometimes help bridge the gap between the dead and the living. “Language is a map leading to a place not on the map.”

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From its outset, “Presence” runs blood-rich with declarations that make you inhale sharply. “Childhood is a series of small disasters that conspire to become something precious.” “Life doesn’t start when you’re born — it begins when you commit yourself to the eventual devastating loss that results from [loving someone].” “Dying has given me the luxury of time by taking it away.” “You can’t change the past, only look for clues in a puzzle in which looking for clues is a clue.”

Yet these are mere asides, as “Presence’s” tantalizing story unfolds. Max has loved Hadley since childhood, when she saved him from a vicious schoolyard beating. They find one another again as teenagers, after the death of Hadley’s father. When, as married adults, Max and Hadley lose an infant boy, it almost ends the marriage. “Our near separation was not because we didn’t love each other,” Max explains, “but because it hurt to love anything.” Now, after healing years (demonstrated in lovely flashbacks of the couple’s devotion), Max has received a diagnosis of terminal illness.

Understandably, he freaks out, and runs off for a bit to gather himself. But quickly following his own (perfectly described) fear and confusion, Max’s great mission clarifies: He must devise a way to deliver the news to his lifelong beloved — gently and carefully enough that he may somehow protect her from being destroyed by it.

These events arrive matter-of-factly, as a kind of Human Predicament roll call. Readers at once feel part of Max’s struggle to figure out what to do, much of it recounted with sly wit and an almost unspeakable tenderness. When Max tells Hadley she looks great, and she responds, “Oh, you always say that. It doesn’t mean anything,” he delivers a more detailed compliment: “You look like Maid Marian as a hooker who won the lottery.” When she laughs, he says, “the sound filled my entire body.”

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Yet “Presence” also flows with so much depth and power it’s difficult to describe. Thankfully, sensuous consolations (food, weather, landscapes) cushion the journey — as do allies: a brilliant therapist, and an accidental new friend who proves instrumental. In some of the most beautiful prose of Van Booy’s oeuvre, Max ponders existence, memory, time — a voice with everything at stake and not one nanosecond to waste. “[W]hat form could a record of what’s forgotten take? Look around. Better yet, push your hands through the skin of a river; lay down in any field; spread amidst the roots of trees; inhale dusk.” The upshot, Max insists, is “you must be willing to love everyone. Because anybody could be anybody.”

That vision may be ancient, but Max well understands the tendency of the living to decide, per Martin Amis, that “it's really too bad about the others” and that our own time here is, somehow, forever. “Presence” softly sweeps aside such notions, replacing them with wide-open wonder.

Joan Frank’s recent books are “Juniper Street: a Novel” and “Late Work: A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I Was Reading.”

The Presence of Absence

By Simon Van Booy

Godine. 184 pp. $24.95

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