Spiritual quarantine

Sonny Brewer's novel is based on the true story of a dying man who left everything to spend his last days building a round house.

The tragically prolonged case of Terri Schiavo keeps forcing Americans to articulate the dimensions of the right to die. A Florida court recently ruled that Ms. Schiavo's husband may defy her parents' wishes next week and remove the feeding tube that has kept her alive in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years. The details of this case and its massive publicity are unusual, but it raises an issue with broad, unsettling relevance in a culture so enamored of eternal youth, so beguiled by medical technology.

"The Poet of Tolstoy Park," by Sonny Brewer, makes a quiet, thoughtful contribution to the discussion of how we approach death. About a deeply religious man who's been told he'll die soon, it follows, perhaps a little too closely, Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" about a deeply religious man who's been told he'll die soon. Brewer's novel isn't as good as Robinson's, but there's no shame in that; hardly anyone is better than she is. Besides, Brewer is more specifically interested in how we confront the end.

His novel is based on the strange but true story of Henry Stuart in the 1920s. At 67, Henry is a retired education professor who lives alone in Idaho, enjoying the company of his two grown sons and the local minister. The Rev. William Webb can't coax Henry back to church since his wife died, but they maintain a cordial banter about spiritual matters: "Henry was at ease with his belief" that everyone gets to heaven by his own route, while his minister reminds him to come back to the fold before he can smell the brimstone.

That possibility grows more imminent when Henry's doctor diagnoses him with an advanced case of noncontagious tuberculosis and gives him less than a year to live. There are no viable medical options for him to pursue, and the symptoms are so dramatic that he doesn't bother with a second opinion.

"While Henry was certainly melancholic about dying," Brewer writes, "his own regard for life's end bore an equal measure of intense curiosity." It's an opportunity, Henry immediately decides, to place himself in "spiritual quarantine" and spend his final months in contemplation of what really matters.

This sounds like a month of Tuesdays with Morrie, but it's something more subtle (except for the sometimes stilted dialogue, which reminded me of the dramatic moments in "Star Trek": "I will not face away. I will not hide, nor shall I cringe. But I won't step one step to meet my death.") Brewer, an editor and bookstore owner in Alabama, comes across as a wise, contemplative man, and his debut novel is full of a lifetime's worth of careful thought about how to live well.

Confronted with the news of his impending demise, Henry takes off his boots and walks home barefoot from the doctor's office. That's just the beginning of his eccentric behavior. To cleanse himself of material possessions, he gives away almost everything he owns. And then, against the strenuous objections of those who love him, he moves 2,500 miles away to Fairhope, Ala., where's he bought a few acres near a utopian community based on the ideals of Leo Tolstoy. (Tolstoy, you may remember, abandoned his home in the final months of his life, too.)

Much of this gentle story describes Henry's efforts to build a round, concrete hut, inspired by his study of native American spirituality. The idea for this house - "something of a cross between an igloo and a hogan and a beehive" - comes to him in an epiphany during a hurricane soon after he arrives in Fairhope. Of course, the work is very demanding and, Henry admits, his goal is downright bizarre, but he's convinced that the process of concentrating on his physical labor - abstaining from all company and intellectual pursuit - will bring him the peace he needs at the end of his life.

Henry is skeptical of the utopians' faith in communal improvement rather than self-improvement, but their reverence for his Russian hero leads him to believe they'll be good neighbors. The problem, though, is he doesn't want any neighbors. Like Henry David Thoreau, to whom he alludes several times, this Henry wants to be alone. But good people don't want to leave an elderly man alone, particularly a sweet, witty man who says all kinds of thoughtful, provocative things. As soon as he arrives, Henry finds himself feeling guilty for fending off the gracious entreaties of his new friends. When they hear he's dying, they're even more determined to help.

"I don't know how to express my wish to do this work alone, to not explain myself again and again, and to not seem rude," Henry says as politely as he can. "But I must ask the kind people of Fairhope to leave me alone." Brewer explores this tension with great tact and sensitivity. For thousands of years, inspired people (mostly men) have been striking out alone to pursue enlightenment, but this story wonders if there isn't a touch of narcissism in that quest.

Henry pleads that he's building his soul, and no one can help with that, but his new friends aren't convinced. During the novel's only really contentious moment, one of his neighbors, a charming young widow, delivers a stinging rebuke of his "woe-is-me loneliness" before leaving him to "wallow in his mud pie like a self-absorbed pig."

As it happens, Henry does attain a degree of spiritual clarity, but he doesn't spend his remaining time alone - and he doesn't die. Not that year or the next or during the next 20. He isn't particularly interested in the precise nature of his healing, but he's grateful for it. And he knows that what matters most isn't the restoration of physical health but the insight that can never be taken from him. It's a new opportunity, he realizes, to help others. Clearly, this book flows from the same motive.

Ron Charles is leaving the Monitor to join the Washington Post's Book World.

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