On ‘Thomas Murphy’

Brian Doyle’s review of Roger Rosenblatt’s novel Thomas Murphy does the book some small justice but let me add, if I may, strong encouragement to you to read it as soon as you’re able.  In many ways, it’s an old-fashioned book but in these times of mortal combat between the sexes, we all could use a little old-fashioned, particularly men, who are constantly beset not only with criticism from our wives and girlfriends for not being the malleable clay they thought they were molding, but also with the stress of being, whether we will or no, the heavy-lifter, the principal wage-earner, who endures the sweat and anger of the shop floor and the constant, annoying decline of our own physical skills because we know that, whether acknowledged or not,  our lives and our ways of loving are needed.

Murphy would understand what I just wrote, even if you don’t.  He’s 72 as the novel opens–a little young for the onset of dementia, if you ask me; but, then again, maybe not.  The short-term memory loss begins to set in around that age, depending on how we’ve used our minds over our lives and on how we’ve eaten and cared for ourselves and the physical environment in which we’ve lived.  And Murphy is, we understand, a man merely on the edge of dementia.  He is still lucid, and thank heaven for his clarity.  He’s a working poet, and there are several examples of his work in the novel but, to tell you the truth, Murphy (and Rosenblatt) is at his best as a prose poet, a la Richard Hugo or James Joyce.  The two of them (often indistinguishable) immerse us in the vast sea of words and memory that stretches from the Irish coast of Murphy’s childhood to the ceaseless, liquid sidewalks of Manhattan, where Murphy now lives. The poet reflects on his dead wife; he agitates over his too-perfect (and murdered) best friend; he laments the passage of time and the failures of language.  He also, however, reluctantly plays the role of Cyrano De Bergerac for a friend, only to find out that that wasn’t what he was meant to do at all.  The favor for a friend is all the plot there is in the novel.  Wonder of wonders, it’s all the plot that’s needed, for Rosenblatt and Murphy have more on their minds than just a story.  They take us on a tour of the aging, active mind, “a book with the pages torn out,” Murphy tells us, although that isn’t quite right:  at this stage, our storyteller’s mind is more like a page in a paperback upon which some words have faded because of their exposure to sunlight.

“Light” and “seeing” are in truth the operative metaphors over the last half of the novel, especially as they relate to Murphy’s deepening relationship with Sarah, the woman to whom he was to play a modern Cyrano.  Their story is unabashedly romantic, but do not be put off by it.  Murphy may be old, but he is no fool, and neither is she.  Rosenblatt even gives us the merest suggestion, I believe, that their whole relationship was set up from the beginning.  If I’m right about that, you’ll be able to tell; and if I’m wrong, you’ll be able to tell that, too, and not a thing will be spoiled by the misperception.  In any case,  the ending of Thomas Murphy is perfect, a worthy entrant, I think, in that great hall of fame we reserve for books that not only end as they should but also end as we wish them to, with a satisfying glance back over the story we’ve been told, and a hint of a story yet to come.

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